Show me an Indian who does not indulge in eating on a holiday and I’ll show you an Indian who’s either sick, comatose or is participating in the imminent Miss India contest. For Indians, holidays are as much about food as sightseeing or visiting.

Don’t we all go into a flurry when we have out-of-town guests coming over. What will they eat… we wonder. What’s the best we can do? And for the visitors – if they are close, a list ensues from us – don’t forget to get me the famous sweet from there. For our part, from Mumbai, don’t we carry Alphonso mangoes to Delhi in the mango season and faithfully carry Mishti Doi when we return from Kolkata? Aren’t we reprimanded if we go to Rajasthan and haven’t partaken of Daal Baati? Why did you even go there, people tend to ask. And you look shamefacedly down, observe your toes keenly while you mumble excuses of how there was not enough time.

Tch.Tch. Food rules India. We may not be MasterChefs but we definitely are MasterFoodies.

Going to any place in India and coming back without smacking your lips on the local delicacies is in one contemporary word: #FAIL.

So would my #FiveDaysOff be any less? No way.  Dietary consciousness and weight regimens were left behind at the tarmac in Mumbai as we took off for Jammu.

I did my fellow Indians no disservice. Every local delicacy was partaken of, as a group or singly, every dhaba (roadside eatery) enthusiastically patronized, every wayside chaiwallah was given a boost in his daily income. As SG put it, we did great service to the local economy and one of the ways was through the eateries.

If I had a problem it was the coffee. Being a coffee drinker (which means – I don’t drink tea at all) I did have my share of challenges. But more about that later.

So we land in Jammu. Rajmah Chaawal (Kidney beans and Rice) must be had. The first opportunity we got was at the langar (kitchens) at the one of the temples. Simple wholesome Rajma and rice. The deliciousness of simple food cooked with the love of the locals is hard to beat. Our holiday had begun. The taste buds were already dancing!

Our next stop was Katra. In Katra the hotel gave us our first big meal. But later in the evening we stepped out to the local chaiwallah. The rainy weather was still a concern. Our man sagely told us that if it was to happen, it would happen. The important thing was to have freshly brewed tea. I gingerly asked for some coffee. And he magnanimously told me that he had some remnant coffee powder and that he’d make me some coffee later.

Once we had the entire group sipping, what I was told, really good tea, he proceeded to make my coffee. The tea vessel was perfunctorily rinsed. He pumped the kerosenes stove and put some water and milk to boil. Then added a handful of sugar (yes hand full – no spoon!). It was also a handful because I had told him I didn’t want it very sweet. I guess it would have been several fistfuls if I had not told him that. Then he added whatever coffee powder was in the pack. In my mind, very little. But it was cold and I wanted to have what I convinced myself would be coffee. It was. Somewhat. The final boiling hot brew that was handed over to me tasted of tea, kerosene, sugar, milk and coffee, in that order and in descending order of prominence. Oh well… this is too far north to expect good coffee, I thought, while I gently kicked myself for not carrying my travel kettle with me.
I missed my travel kettle throughout  my trip. Good coffee and the North of India do not get along very well. Not only that, even in the hotels, the sachets of coffee are the worst of MYFIRSTCOFFEE by Nescafe which to my mind is a sad apology for coffee and should be banned from the market.  Or should be arrested for masquerading as coffee. But never mind, I am wiser now. And I will never abandon my coffee dreams.

As we went uphill to the Vaishnodevi Shrine, the local restaurant (FOOD COURT, mind you) gave us our share of Gobi Parathas, Alu Parathas, the tangy North Indian pickle made in mustard oil and of course, Rajma rice! Out there, my coffee was served to me in a leaky Cocacola paper cup. Oh well!

As we came down to Katra, the market treated us to a Spice Fest! Katra revels in the richness of its offerings of nuts, dry fruits, aromatic spices and of course walnuts!

We descended on a shop and made the owner a happy man when he finally closed shop. Then wended our way to a smaller lane, from which we went into an even smaller dhaba. There we ate the best of parathas, vegetables and Rajmash! So we all thought it was a spelling mistake, but an ex-colleague told me that Rajmash was the Rajma mixed with the rice! Genius, isn’t it? And we were wondering why it didn’t come separately!

For those Indians who practise austerity on a holiday, let it be known that the food that we ate was mostly cooked in pure ghee with truly generous dollops of butter put in for good measure. If our clothes got tighter, it was probably because the fabric had shrunk – or contracted in the cold!

Our descent to Amritsar was not without the necessary directions. A close friend  had not only told us where to go but what to eat there. Armed with this kind of insider knowledge our first night in Amritsar took us straight to Sarson da Saag and Makki ki roti followed by a (rather large) glass of lassi/salted buttermilk.

To say that we were ready to burst would be embarrassing. The poor cycle rickshaw driver, I am sure, found it more difficult to pedal back than when we got there first. Ah well. No excuses. A holiday is a holiday and will be celebrated with food.

The next day, we had corn – ummmm- roasted corn on the cob with a generous coating of lime and spice. Nothing quite beats that! And guavas. The guavas in the north are green outside even when ripe. And of course, white inside. Cut into slices with a bit of masala put on it, it takes you straight into Mother Nature’s lap. This is exactly what she had planned when she conceptualised this particular fruit.

You can’t go to the Golden Temple and not eat there. The food served with love and devotion and a serene sense of service is the best ever. Simple dal, beans, kheer and roti were on the menu of the day. You take only as much as you can eat and you don’t waste a morsel. The simple food tastes delicious. But that’s because it is prepared with love, served with devotion and accepted wtih humility.

Evening again found us at Kesar da Dhaba. Amritsar buffs tell me that it is exactly as it was ever since it began some decades ago. I believe it. But what was amazing is that with the food we experienced good old-fashioned hospitality as the steward plied us with more and more of the local fare. After ordering Missi Roti, Chhole and Paratha, we were persuaded to not go without the Daal, Raita and the Gobi Paratha. When we protested, we were offered Phirni!  When the bill came it was so nominal that we were sure that there had been some mistake. But no… this was part of the great Northern hospitality and we left Kesar da Dhaba once again feeling the weight of too much hospitality!
The next day we flew back. And that came to me as a rude shock. My first meal of the day was in the aircraft. The sandwiches were over and I was offered Chettinad something or the other – which looked and tasted like something or the other. 

My gastronomical holiday was so over!


The story continues here

Humbled by Gold #FiveDaysOff Part Five

Did you miss the earlier posts?

United by Faith #FiveDaysOff Part Three

Helicopters, heights and a new high #FiveDaysOff Part Two

A great start… and a miracle #FiveDaysOff Part One