Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Delights of street food

One need not be a foodie to look out for food on television. With the national obsession with the cat-and-mouse games played by the two national political parties avidly covered by the numerous news channels and weepy, lachrymose soaps on other entertainment channels there is very little choice left for a couch potato like me but to veer round to the channels that can hold the attention. Movies are far too long and not quite the cup of tea. The programmes on food are the ones that are generally short and crisp. And, there are a number of them on various channels.

The Indian channels like Times Now and  TV 24x7 generally have only weekly slots which too can be cancelled for more important and newsworthy shows. NDTV Good Times, Fox Traveller, Travel & Living are some of the ones which schedule a number of half-hour slots where a bit of a ‘whiff’ of the flavours of world cuisine can be had. Food Safari, World Cafe Asia, Twist of Taste, Feast Bazaar, Nigella’s Feast and so on are the ones that are eminently watchable of the programmes. Currently, however, emphasis is on street food with programmes like “Street Food around the World” and “Eat Street. A Street Food Festival – Celebration of Flavours is also being currently telecast.

Although street food in India offers such array tastes and flavours yet, unfortunately, it is fraught. So many imponderables are associated with Indian street food. One can never be sure of its purity and the quality of its ingredients. Adulteration of food items is common and the cooked food can get contaminated in many
Typical Non-veg fare on the streets
ways – by exposure carriers of infection, dust and other contaminants. Even the cooking medium and water that is used could well be contaminated. The cooks of all that is purveyed on the streets of India generally care little for hygiene and added to that is the pervasive insanitation. Occasionally, street food vendors even set up shop openly displaying all that they offer surrounded by filth and squalor. Worse, in India bare hands are extensively used in handling and dishing out food items. No one knows whether the hands are properly washed or sterilised.

In India systems are always put in place but they are seldom functional. Food and beverages monitoring establishments have been installed but somehow these outfits always fail the people. All over the country they are kind of moribund and inactive with all kinds of excuses for being dysfunctional. As their presence is not visible people don’t take them seriously. Generally none has faith in the inspectorial staff as they are taken mostly as bunches of corrupt officials. Mercifully, some efforts at checking the food on the street and that dished out through eateries recently commenced in Bhopal. A few checks carried out revealed startling results. After reading the reports not many people would have the gumption to consume any of the stuff available out on the streets or even in some of the run-of-the-mill eateries. Obviously, a lot of work needs to be done by them. Hopefully, they realise that on their commitment to duties depends the good health and wellbeing of a very large number of people who consume street food – some out of sheer necessity and others for pleasure. Besides if they function properly, they would be doing a service to the healthcare system which is being choked to death because of widespread food and water contamination.

It is indeed a pity that street food in India is so risky for the health and well-being of people. Despite that, however, it is popular. Not only it is cheap, it also provides a means of self-employment to a very substantial
An Indian item being readied in a London joint
section of the people, especially those who are not able to find employments. Such delectable stuff is on offer on the streets all over the country that one is always tempted to taste it. Whether vegetarian or non-vegetarian, a snack or a meal, the stuff is tempting – in appearance, taste and the aroma that it exudes.

No wonder Indian street food has now travelled abroad. London, for example, hosts quite a few joints that serve street food. In “Zaika India ka” hosted on NDTV by the well-known anchor Vinod Dua a large number of young white people were seen tucking in Indian food sitting on London sidewalks in front of joints that dish out spicy Indian stuff. What is more, the snacks of Delhi, Mumbai and Kerala are now crowding the sidewalks of London. Pau bhaji, kathi rolls and masala dosas are progressively becoming firm favourites among Londoners. Kerb at King’s Cross plays host to a number of international flavours where Dosa Deli serves crisp dosas with a wide range of fillings. A joint called Horn Ok Please serves Paani puries and there also are vendors of samosas and chaat. At Tooting High Street even the Bengali snack Jhaal Muri is dished out from Jhaal Muri Express by an Englishman who learnt the art of creating the perfect mix from the street vendors of Kolkata. He hawks around the stuff in his colourful cart concentrating on areas where Indians happen to be the dominant community.

Not exactly street food, but Indian spiced-up items of chicken-tikka-masala, paneer palak, samosas and numerous others have become ubiquitous across the Atlantic in New York City dished out at new breed of Indian restaurants that are neither Michelin-starred nor the no-frills like eateries elsewhere in the city. The dosas and peppery rasam right next to north Indian joints doling out hot butter chicken, biryanis, rotis, aloo-papri chaat, keema naan, kati roll and so on. With a mind-boggling array of affordable dishes to choose from offering sharp, hot and fiery tastes from across most of India, Curry hill is a cheap-eaters’ paradise.
best of the “Indian fast food”, however, is available at what is affectionately called “Curry Hill” at Lexington Avenue on the east side of Manhattan. From hole-in-the-wall snack shops south Indian rustle up oversized

US seem to have emerged as a heaven for street food lovers. “Eat Street”, a programme telecast by Fox Traveller every day, shows the popularity of street food all across USA from San Diego to New York City. Specially designed vehicles parked at vantage points serve the burgeoning clientele burgers with a variety of fillings and an array of sauces. It is a quite a sight to see American men women and children opening their jaws wide to sink their teeth into massive burgers filled with all the goodies The mayor of Memphis, Tennessee, a place made famous by Elvis Presley, was once seen eating off a parked truck and was highly appreciative of whatever he took a big bite of. From Hispanic to Indian, from paella to pies and curried chicken and from nachos, tacos, tortillas, naans and Ethiopian flat bread - everything is available.

A Nonthaburi, Thailand, serving
Bobby Chinn, a street food presenter, in his programme “World Cafe – Asia” on Fox Traveller takes the viewers through the streets of that capital of Street Food, Bangkok, to the colourful and vibrant night markets of Taipei, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and other South-East Asian cities where chop sticks keep busy with hordes of people using them to shove in the amazingly rich fare with fantastic aromas and tastes that are available right through the night. Chinn has ventured out to even the Middle East to present some delectable barbecued stuff. Barry Vera, another food anchor of Feast Bazaar eats his way through Morocco. The Food
Market of Marrakesh is mind-blowing with an amazing range of snacks, complete meals and drinks to go with them. Located inside a massive walled court yard in central section of the old city it is a sight to see the food carts wheeled in to convert it in a matter of minutes into a vibrant and thriving Market in the evening that provides visitors culinary delights till late into the night.

Even if it is on the TV, seeing people eat off the streets with such abandon sometimes makes one feel jealous. Assured as they are of the quality of the stuff they consume, they have not a care or worry and have absolute freedom from anxiety. No such freedom, however, is available in this country to the discerning patrons of our mouth-watering street food

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Uttarakhand done in by overdose of "development"

Kedarnath Valley
Any talk of “development” today sounds ominous and one tends to visualise the motives behind it that are sinister. Our political masters (mis) understand by the word development only growth and expansion that is  None is bothered about how that affects those who people such developed habitat with an ecosystem that is often uncongenial and degraded. 
mostly spatial in the context of a city. That there are other meanings also attached to the word, like improvement in quality, refinement or even an attempt to attain fullness, do not seem to occur to them. That a city has its own ecosystem comprising all the natural elements, including the humans that need to attain fullness is missed by them. To the politicians development means build and construct more and more eating away all that comes in the way, farmlands, hills wetlands or whatever. The greater such development, the thicker is the cream that can be skimmed.

In the context, for example, of Bhopal, a city that could have been beautiful and eminently liveable, development has wrought havoc to its environment. In the quest of that illusive or, more appropriately, ill-conceived and misdirected development, the powers-that-be allowed its green hills to be ravished, life-giving water bodies to be degraded, tranquilising centuries-old parks ravaged and rendered a once-salubrious clime immoderate and unwholesome. 

Living in this city as I do, I have, therefore, come to dread the word “development”. Fortunately for me I am not alone. Even the Supreme Court recently echoed similar sentiments, though in a different context. It said, (Mahanadi Coalfields case - 2010).  A kind of tyranny that inflicts lifelong misery and privation! 
Gangotri Valley
“the whole issue of development appears to be so simple, logical and commonsensical. And yet, to millions of Indians, development is a dreadful and hateful word...”

Nevertheless, driven by their lust for power and eventual pelf the politicians, ably assisted by the construction lobby (or is it a mafia?) and unscrupulous bureaucrats, swing into action for development contributing to that buzz-word, “growth”. Looking for short-term gains – of flow of votes and cash – they get into a mad rush for development with utter disdain for the consequences of their actions in the long term. 

Something of this nature happened in Uttarakhand in recent times. As long as it was part of the massive state of Uttar Pradesh (UP) it was neglected, being far away from the centre of gravity. Born as Uttaranchal in puranic times. Soon the process of development was initiated by those who fought for its separation. Having got hold of power they launched themselves into a mad scramble to convert it into an “Oorja Pradesh” (The Energy State). For realising the state’s hydro-power potential of an estimated 25000 MW building of dams, barrages and embankments on and along the rivers became an obsession. In the process, numerous roads by cutting the hills or tunnelling through them (weakening the already weak young mountains) were constructed to get to the sites of dams and barrages necessitating large-scale scarring of the mountain-sides and deforestation. Forests were also lost to agriculture, housing for progressive urbanisation and to other sundry activities.
2006 on separation from the parent UP, it was renamed as Uttarakhand – a name that traces its origin to

Those who happened to be in power could not resist the spin-offs from construction, logging and so on and, virtually, the state was progressively stripped off of its natural assets. Possessed as they seemed to be, they even refused to implement the Central notification declaring an eco-sensitive zone between Gomukh (terminus of the Gangotri glacier at around 13000 ft.) and its district headquarters Uttarkashi (app 4500 ft.) for the sake of development. (A 1700 MW hydelpower plant had been planned where generation of not more than 2 MW was permissible. Mass scale land-use conversion was planned for mining, construction of hotels and resorts.) Progressively, the mountains got scarred and lost their green cover that deprived them of the capability to hold the soil, the dammed rivers lost their waters, the animals their pastures as the locals looked on, presumably, in dismay.

Badrinath Valley
Blessed as the state is with the four holy Hindu shrines, of which two are connected with the most holy and Rest houses and hotels came up, shopping and eating joints were opened up all along the routes on mountain slopes and dangerously close to the fast-running rivers, throwing to the winds all environmental norms.
revered rivers of the country, it could never have escaped pilgrims from all over the country. The new state, however, gave the subdued religious tourism a mighty heave. It became a big collective enterprise and virtually every section of the population got into the act. Roads were re-laid or newly-built on which run hundreds of buses, SUVs and MUVs.

The country’s rising middleclasses sent the tourist traffic soaring by the year so much so that on 16th June 2013, thousands were milling around at the four shrines located at elevations of 10000 to 12000 ft in ecologically fragile narrow valleys. While the entire population of the state is 1 crore, 2.5 crore tourists had
The flood
travelled to it – much more than what was its carrying capacity. Kedarnath with a population of fewer than 500 was hosting 17000 pilgrims. A disaster was in the making and, lo and behold, suddenly Nature struck a violent blow – a massive cloudburst that sent millions of cusecs of water gushing through the narrow valleys carrying along massive boulders down the steep mountain slopes sweeping away or destroying everything that came in their way, from houses to cars to men, women, animals roads, and slices of the weakened mountain sides.

The question that authorities must answer is “Development for whom? For those who lost their lives or are still missing and presumed dead or for those who have lost their homes, breadwinners and all their means of livelihood in the havoc that was wreaked?  

Uttarakhand alone is not in the race for development at the cost of environment. Another small state carved out of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, is racing ahead to become the power house for the country. Sitting on vast reserves of coal, it has cleared coal-mining even in virgin forests, one of which was a proposed elephant reserve in a forest that was declared “no-go” by Jairam Ramesh during his tenure as environment minister.
Kedarnath shrine after the cloudburst
Advocated by him to prevent all human intervention in such primeval forests the concept, however, lost out to the imperatives of development at the hands of the Prime Minister. Numerous thermal plants in the state spewing yet-to-be-managed polluting fly ash have rendered fertile farmlands infertile and local tribal inhabitants sick and poor. The entire thing is, however, a different long story that has already been told.

A large section of the Indian political class care little for the environment as it often proves to be a hindrance in their vote-catching and money-making devices. No wonder environment is taking a beating all over the country in the mad rush for development. Dams, mining and industry coupled with unrestrained tourism have devastated or are in the process of devastating the environment in large tracts of the country in ecologically sensitive areas, from North-East to Odisha in the East, to the South in Karnataka and Kerala, from Goa and Western Ghats in the West to Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand in the North. The most serious instance of political aversion to the cause of the environment was the suppression in 2011 of the Report of Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel by the very Ministry (of Forests & Environment) that had constituted it. It had eventually to be put in the public domain as a sequel to orders issued under the Right to Information Act.

Politics of votes, coupled with pervasive corruption, is out to destroy whatever little is left of the country’s environmental assets. If no remission takes place in respect of all that is currently happening, the country is likely to witness many more “Uttarakhands” in the future.  

 All photos are from Internet

Friday, July 5, 2013

Swazi king and his cute little kingdom

King Mswati III
King Mswati III of Swaziland was in the news recently. Polygamous to the core, he wanted a 22 year old girl as his 14th wife. He got smitten by her when she was just 15 and kept making advances. Made of sterner
stuff, she had no intentions of joining the millionaire king’s harem of 13 wives (with their individual palaces and luxury cars) several concubines. She, therefore, fled to Britain and currently living in Birmingham has sought asylum in the country. The 45 year old king lost a wife, his sixth, last year who escaped from his harem citing years of emotional and physical abuse.

King Mswati III has made quite a bit of progress since the summer of 1989 when I happened to be there in Swaziland on a mission of the Universal Postal Union. He was a strapping young man of 21 then and already had as many as four wives and was reputed to have had a clutch of concubines. An absolute ruler of a small principality that is surrounded by South Africa on three sides and Mozambique on the fourth, it used to be a country then of around 700,000 who were mostly Swazis and Bantus who had migrated from Central Africa a few centuries ago. Their traditions are mixed – both Swazi and Zulu – as they had earlier been part of Zululand.

Though less than 200 kilomertres both from east to west and north to south the country exhibits varied physical features. In the west is the Highveld where elevations can be as much as 6000 ft. To the east, the heights gradually yield to slopes, the Middleveld, with rolling grasslands and then on to the nearly flat savannas of the Lowveld less than 1000 ft. in elevation. The climate changes with elevation from temperate in Highveld to generally hot in the rest of the country. Winters from April to September are cool, more so up in the Highveld.

Self and Dr. Ahmed at the game park
I was there in April and May in Mbabane, the capital, located on the Highveld and it was pleasantly cool. A beautiful little town of about 100,000, Mbabane is almost like one of our hill stations with proliferating tourist resorts and hotels of the famed Sun International chain. A large number of South Africans, especially of staunch anti-apartheid.
Indian origin, were seen flocking to the place to make merry and enjoy the eye-catching landscape in the cool bracing weather. Apartheid was still in force in South Africa and movement of coloured and black people in its urban areas was restricted. Perhaps, hence the influx of Indians! I couldn’t make it to Johannesburg though it was very close to Mbabane since my passport was not even endorsed for South Africa. We were such

From just outside Mbabane one gets a fantastic view of the beautiful Ezulvini Valley – Valley of the Heavens. One gets to see a picture-postcard country right down to the horizon. It is in this Valley that the Royal kraal
Add cA Swazi hut at the Game Park
is located in a place called Ludzidzini. (Most of the names in the country sound so musical) It is the place where the Swazi maidens collect annually for the Reed Dance, a traditional spring festival of Swazi maidenhood and chastity. Dancing, reportedly, barefoot and bare-breasted, the maidens also use the opportunity to catch the eye of the king. The Reed Dance, incidentally, takes place around the same time in almost all southern African countries.

Manzini in the Lowveld is the second town of the country and is also the point of entry and exit. It is the commercial, agricultural and industrial centre and hence is known as “The Hub”. Like Mbabane, it offers good shopping. Arcades and shopping plazas were seen loaded with stuff imported from all over the world.
African marketing chains like Ellerines have set up profitable business in the country. Some second, third generation Indians too have set up shops. I espied a small Ganesh bust in one of the shops the owner of which had moved in from the then disturbed Mozambique.

In Manzini, too, hotels are plentiful as also eateries. In the shopping plaza at Mbabane fish-and-chips on offer was as good if not better than what you get in UK. Downed with South African wine, I found it divine. Unlike our cities, sanitation and cleanliness in the country – even in the Lowveld towns – is of a high order.
A game park is located virtually next to the town. Only 20-odd kilometres away from Mbabane, I visited it several times in the very pleasant company of one Dr. Ahmed, a person of Indian origin belonging to Uganda whose family was displaced during Idi Amin’s rule. Settled in Leicester in England, he had come as a
In the Park
gynaecologist from England under British Overseas Exchange Programme and was staying in the same hotel
We hit it off very well and were kind of inseparables during our off-hours.

Because of the small dimensions of the park it cannot host the big cats as also elephants. But it had a fair number of other games like impalas, kudus, zebras, giraffes, hippos, crocodiles and an assortment of exotic birds. One evening Dr. Ahmed and I were up against a massive hippo blocking our way while returning from the park after dark. Frequently dangerous, we had to wait for some long minutes to enable it to decide to move away. The park offers beautiful views of the grasslands and is ideal for day-long excursions. There is an open-air restaurant right in the middle where one can lunch on (culled) impala meat curry and rice. With delectable South African red wine from the neighbouring store it makes a marvellously satisfying lunch
The king’s 21st birthday celebrations came along around the time I was there in Mbabane. Festivities were in the air and local bands were seen marching through the principal streets. A lavish day-long party was held in which all of us foreigners were invited. The main function was organised in the Swazi stadium a few
Swazi dancers at the King's birthday bash
kilometres away and was thrown open to the public. The King and his minsters were in attendance as also the venerated Queen Mother. Kenneth Kaunda, the then President of Zambia, was the special invitee and gave a somewhat tiring hour-long address to the gathering. Soon the local men and women wearing their traditional attires entered the arena and danced in gay abandon. Later, everyone assembled under massive colourful marquees for lunch of roasted meat.

Today King Mswati III happens to be the last absolute monarch in the African continent and yet his people – 60% of whom reportedly live below poverty line – love him. His principality has a constitution but no political parties; the King hates them, perhaps rightly so. Whatever it is, he rules over a beautiful country that is doing none too badly.

Legend has it that King Solomon marched through these parts in his quest for gold. Such a quest today may prove disappointing. But, one would get, if not gold, a delightful break in this beautiful and, in many respects, modern little country. What if its King has 13 wives?  

Photo of the King is from the Internet. Rest were all taken by self

DISAPPEARING FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION Rama Chandra Guha, free-thinker, author and historian Ram Chandra Guha, a free-thinker, author and...