Tuesday, January 13, 2015

All the news thats fit to eat

It was about 9:30 in the morning, and we had already been riding for about two hours, having left early to beat the heat. After consuming a fairly ample self-made "bed tea" and "bed porridge", which is another story, we had cycled some 35kms in central Maharashtra, when it felt as if we were climbing a steep hill and the same time, facing severe headwinds. Its seemed like no amount of pushing was getting us ahead: a sure sign that our bodies were rapidly running out of fuel.

Thankfully, we soon came to a cross-road, which had a few stalls, where locals were sitting sipping chai in the morning sunlight. There was also a large crowd congregating around a man, quite rotund (a sure confirmation of his popularity and financial success), who was dishing a yellow looking something from a two gallon pot. We gestured to him that we wanted to eat and nodded as he served up two plates of his steaming offering. The food tasted so marvelous that we in unison ordered a second serving, feeling our bodies instantly energized. Our sense of well-being was enhanced by the colorful yellow rice, with hints of saffron and bits of vegetables and spices, which is a local staple called poha. At the time, I could not help but think that this was the best fried rice that I had ever eaten, which triggered thoughts about our eating experiences over the last two months while cycling through India.

Had we been is some recently opened, star-chef operated restaurant back home, loved by the critics and followed by those in the know with a several month wait for reservations, I could imagine a waiter with attitude handing out menus to the privileged few, no doubt printed on fine parchment, which would call the rice dish we had just consumed as "melange aux riz provencal supreme" with accents flying in every direction. In finer print It would poetically embellish and describe it as "organic South Indian hand picked long grain rice, suffused with saffron and gently sauted with locally sourced, seasonal vegetables".

While fine dining may be the flavour of the day, for those who hunger for the latest trends, nothing satisfied us more than the plate of poha at a time we needed it: grub, food, substance, nourishment, energy served by an amicable man who ladled heaping spoonfuls of his one and only offering to the masses and to two hungry and appreciative cyclists.

In fact, during most of our Indian travels the best foods are enjoyed at eateries without menus. They are inevitably places that cater to truckers, who vote with their wheels. On the road, truck stops need no reviews nor star chefs, no menus nor flowery adjectives (which seem to enhance anticipation, but often disappoint). The wheel counts at the side of the road are proof of the pudding, not that the food is mush. The truck stop eateries, or dhabas as they are known locally, predictably offer dahl and vegetable dishes that come piping hot, highly spiced and in huge quantities, accompanied by freshly sliced onions and pickles. There is always an ample supply of hot-out-of-the-oven tandoori breads and if still hungry, a bowl of steamed rice at the end as a filler. And the service is always impeccable: quickly prepared with refills offered without demand. We have yet to leave a highway dahba on our combined four wheels hungry or well served and our pocket book hardly dented.

These reflections also remind me how much of our food in India is sourced directly from markets, bought in bulk, taken away wrapped in newspapers, tied with strings and how little of it is pre-packaged. But what is more glaringly missing are lists of ingredients which has me thinking how we in our developed world no longer eat food, but consume an infinite possible combinations of calories, fiber, fats, salt, sugars, pre or pro-biotics, various nutrients etc. As such, food shopping becomes a mind-boggling exercise in juggling combinations of ingredients and the bewildering array of choices becomes a quest for some kind of Nirvana. Food consumption in our western world and the endless possibilities leads to industries promulgating obviously conflicting diets based on fats, protein, carbohydrates, which in turn supports an industry of cooking and recipe advice and a complementary industries designed to help us lose the weight from all the over-consumption, whether its through diets or various eating and exercise regimens.

Of course in our developed world, the luxury of choice, and the constant preoccupation of evaluating, measuring, comparing, and always seeking the ultimate to give us the sense of well-being, applies not only to picking restaurants, buying food, but to nearly everything that we acquire. With rapid advances in technology, yesterday's "it" goods or services become outmoded, which in turn, create a pang for the latest, in an ever-expanding cycle of acquiring and disposing, bingeing and purging, but never being truly satisfied.

The latest fad is all the "Fit-Bits" and related digital health paraphernalia, designed to measure steps, calories, energy expanded, hours slept, distances traveled etc. all in the aid of achieving some ideal weight and state of physical fitness. All through India, people working in the fields, in construction, carrying huge stacks of wood and gallon jugs of water, seem every bit as fit as their developed counterparts, and very few seem to carry extra weight and somehow they seem to manage on fairly basic diets. From an evolutionary point of view, based on those who live north of the Arctic Circle who traditionally lived on a diet of near 100 protein and fat,and those near the equator, who traditionally lived mostly on vegetables and fish, our human body, unlike car engines that can only function on high-octane fuels, we humans are able to function quite well on some pretty basic foods and any combination thereof. Our food malaise for most, stems from a multitude of choices and over consumption, accompanied by a sedentary life style.

A few days later, we yet again are running low on energy as we approach a group of food stalls. We eagerly order two servings of the irresistible yellow rice mixture, which we consume with relish, hardly noticing that they came wrapped in newspapers: all the news thats fit to eat.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Is seeing believing?

During the early years of my high school, I was fortunate to secure through close family connections a job as an electrician's assistant, despite having no more knowledge about the subject than flicking on a switch. The job paid well and while the title seemed glamorous, the the work was anything but: more like several levels below an apprentice sanitary engineer. Beyond the pay, the job had benefits: working using some physical skills, with brick and stone-masons, mostly friendly Italians, who took pity on my meager lunches and shared their giant coolers filled with sandwiches, fruit, desserts and mandatory wine, which was a godsend to an underage teenager. None of these benefits could hide the fact that I was the low-kid on the totem pole. We were working on new schools and my job consisted mostly of using a hammer and chisel to knock pre-designated rectangular shapes in cement blocks to accommodate light-switches and electrical outlets, with an occasional junction box thrown in. Despite cement blocks being relatively soft, and making the openings precise required some concentration, most mistakes could be disguised by cover plates, and if the opening was entirely too large, by groveling to the brick-layers a little mortar would fix my errors. Still, hardly a day went by without the hammer finding the soft-flesh of my knuckles or fingers, and by the end of the summer I had well-pronounced scabs attesting to why I did not rise in rank with experience.

This long winded introduction is by way of establishing my bona fides for the use of and admiration for a hammer and chisel as instruments of construction. These recollections came back to me after seeing and marveling at Kailasa Temple, one of 34 cave temples in Ellora, India, designated as a World Heritage Site. Prior to our arrival in Ellora, we had seen some magnificent cave temples in Badami, and Aurangabad but somehow the scope, size and audacity of Kailasa, has me seeing but still not believing in this creation.

To be clear, cave temples are carved out of massive rock formations, using only a hammer and chisel. These vast temples are not made of soft, sedimentary rock formations but of solid granite, far harder than the soft cement blocks I experienced in my youth. My respect for this instrument is enhanced by the knowledge that most of the other art forms are essentially applying replaceable elements: a canvas can accommodate lot of paint and brush strokes and cover up lots of mistake. Buildings of brick, stone and marble also have tolerance and the ability to cover up errant pieces.

Hard stone, unlike my over-sized electrical cut out boxes, cannot be covered up with a plate, or mortar and a coat of paint. An errant strike of a hammer and chisel leaves a lasting testament and would ruin the entire entity. As such, I try to imagine the mind set of King Krishna 1, in the year 735 who started the construction and all the labour that took to complete this undertaking, two hundred years later, Seeing the results still seems incredulous.

The work began at a cliff top and the entire temple complex is carved out of a giant rock face. Estimates suggest that about 3,000,0000 cubic feet of rock was chiseled out and from which an integral sculptural masterpiece created, some calling it the greatest monolithic sculpture in the world. The footprint of the complex is double that of the Parthenon in Athens, is half as high; about 276 feet long, 154 feet wide and about 107 feet high. Within this giant space are temples, immense monolithic pillars, monasteries, chiselled staircases, elaborate archways, life sized elephants and galleries, all covered with thousands of remarkable and prodigious sculptural statues and decorations on virtually every surface, each of which, is a stand-alone work of art.

One guide book description: "Here is rock cut architecture at the apex of technical skill of eight and ninth centuries. ..it combines immensity with grace, energy and superb genius. Its conception and planning are matched by the jewel-like execution. Hundreds of architects and sculptors created this grandeur out of living rock in an inspired period of the country's art history."

This is our fourth day Ellora. We looked at and passed on staying in two of the only rated hotels in the modest village. Fortunately, further down the road we found a sign advertising "Ellora Heritage Resort" opened only a few months ago.

Our cottage is set in a beautifully landscaped, serene garden perfect for contemplation and viewing the caves from a distance, as if to give a different perspective. Our host Imran, a charming man of the world, does everything to make our stay comfortable, including a surprise birthday cake to celebrate Alison's milestone. And yet, no amount of quiet contemplation has me convinced that "seeing is believing". I still marvel at who ever designed the master plan, how did that first strike of the hammer on a simple chisel resulted in the marvel. Despite the tranquil setting or perhaps because of it, The Kailasa Temple, remains unbelievably inscrutable.

Happy contemplations

after writing the above, I wanted to attached some more details,perhaps some independent photos and descriptions, and like most of us, turned to the Google gods, and the second search item is the video which lends some credence to my own musings?