Sunday, March 29, 2015

travel and food stories : Raju's cottage in Goshaini, Himachal Pradesh, a quite serene place to unwind and enjoy great home cooked food too

Unwind the distress of urban life, unlearn the acquired circadian rhythm and undo the toxic damage done by the city life is what you intend when you head to such a place. I feel we do so much damage to our circadian rhythm in our working city life that it needs a repair in between. Heading towards the hills just to stay put for a few days is such a relief we experienced while spending time in Goshaini. Yes, we had planned we will not do any treks and hikes and just laze around for 5 days. Although we ended up doing a few impromptu hikes around the valley.

Goshaini is a small village located in Teerthan valley (Post Banjaar, State Himachal Pradesh) and falls in the Ecozone of The Great Himalayan National Park. Can you imagine we did not even go the the National Park while we were stationed there. But we had a plan to rest and that we did, planned the National Park visit for a few months later.

Last May a blogger friend Dhiren had gone to Goshaini and had come to my home driving back from there. And the way he praised this home stay at Raju's cottage both of us felt like going there at once. We tried to find a booking during our holidays but Raju's cottage is so popular it is always full, so we booked for the extended Holi weekend almost 8 months in advance. It was totally worth the wait and the commute. Note that we had to wait this long because both of us could not get free dates in the coming months due to work and other travel plans, and in the summer when we had time the homestay was busy mostly with families with school going kids. You can get bookings for your choice of dates if you are lucky. You will fell like going there right away once you know what it is. Read on.

And this is how you cross the gurgling Teerthan river to reach Raju's cottage. The fun begins. And mind you, not the city life kind of fun, this is for real, with real elements of nature thrown in for good measure.

Raju's cottage is a green roofed, wooden cottage that looks like this from the main road just a kilometer short of Goshaini bazar.

Our abode for five days, a peaceful home stay located at the base of apple orchards of Raju Bharti's family. That terraced landscape in the background of the cottage looks barren as it was just after the snow season and all the apple, pear, cherry, apricot and many other fruit trees were all barren.

We would sleep, read books, eat great food cooked by Lata ji (Raju Bharti's wife) and just laze around in the sun. But almost everyday we would go for long walks that would turn out to be at least 3-4 hours hike in the forests or neighboring villages. Just loitering around aimlessly and return for a late lunch.

Look at the people we met and talked along the way every day.

Huge pumpkins and hill cucumbers perched on slate tiled roofs, kids peeping from windows, coming to greet us and offering candies was common. Where do you find such simplicity and honest smiles in the cities?

Raju's cottage looked like this when we went up to the forest on one side.

And like this when we climbed steep hills and some concrete steps to reach Bandal village. The view below is when you climb about 30 minutes from Goshaini towards Bandal.

We found several birds and photographed loads of them. Will share more pictures of birds really soon. These are Russet Sparrows (a couple) enjoying their lunch.

Some of the Apricot and Plum trees had just started blooming. I even found Himalayan raspberries blooming, the one with Arvind's thumb is raspberry blossom. Himalayan raspberry is called Hisalu in Uttarakhand, might have a different name in Himachal.

It was first week of March, still freezing cold after a bout of snow in the valley and everyday we would see fresh snow on the neighboring peaks. It was raining a lot quite uncharacteristic to the month of March but was sunny enough to see the spring knocking at the door. Many stretches along the Teerthan valley had Plum orchards that looked painted white by the fresh blossom. Although there was a real danger of the pollens washing away and destroying the plum harvest this year.

We walked and hiked, finding new openings into the valley, witnessing new peaks, some shining with snow and some crowned with conifers, a lone house perched on a cliff, few kids playing cricket on any plain stretch of land available. We wold stop, breath in the crisp fresh air, ruffle the hill dogs and move on.

We were always late for the designated lunch time but would get a hot and fresh lunch served in the common dining room. I must mention that Raju's cottage has a common dining room, a vibrant place decked up with books, wooden artifacts and painted pebbles kept on the windowsills. The most interesting thing that I found were the huge crystal rocks placed everywhere. There were a few crystal rocks even in our rooms.

All the artwork is made by the guests staying there or is sent by them as a gesture of gratitude.

Food is served fresh, the curries and daal placed in hot plates, rice served in hot case casseroles and hot rotis being brought to each guest as you eat. Indian home style food and some local regional food with vegetarian and non vegetarian choices is what you would expect in such places but the warmth that you find here is something to cherish.

Absolutely home style meals served just like food is served in joint families, I loved this part quite a lot, more so because food is always a special experience for me. Raju's cottage and Lata ji's cooking didn't disappoint me even taste wise.

See what all we had. Traditional Himachali sidu, the steamed (leavened) whole wheat bread stuffed with poppy seed paste, served with a dollop of home made ghee.

The ghee had such an intoxicating flavour of nostalgia, reminded me of the ghee my grandmother would bring from our village. Slightly smoky and so flavourful, the sidu is steamed over leaves of galgal lemons (large pahadi lemons).

Ghee is made by the milk they get from the cowshed they maintain. All the milk, yogurt and paneer they use come from their own cows. How cool is that.

I spotted morels growing in Raju's orchard, it was the first time I had seen them growing wild like this.

Seeing my interest in morels, Lata ji cooked guchhi pulao (morel pilaf) one day. Her chciken and mutton curries are to die for.

Look at this gucchi pulao (morel pilaf). And that is a lot of morels considering it is so costly.

Here is sepu wadi (urad daal dumplings in spinach gravy) which is a popular recipe served in Himachal Dhams (wedding parties). A uniquely aromatic curry that I learnt cooking and recreated in my own kitchen after returning. Sepu wadi recipe will be shared shortly.

Getting breathless climbing mountains, returning hungry and being treated with such warming food is bliss. We did not want to come back.

Did I mention that each room at Raju's cottage has a small bookshelf too. At least our room had one and three extra rooms around the bedroom to laze around. Two of those rooms were river facing, the bathroom was also river facing and very very cold due to that. But thank God they rarely have power cuts so hot water was not a problem. They have installed solar heaters for the main kitchen and guest bathrooms too. There are solar lanterns for the guests if they have to go around in the night.

Raju Bharti is an interesting person, his father was a local MLA as he told and seems to have done remarkable work in the area. Raju himself has filed cases against corporates who wanted to build dams up the river and had arranged government sanction too. He was able to stop the making of dams on the Teerthan river and considers the river as her Goddess. He is a member of various committees overlooking the management of The Great Himalayan National Park and takes active interest in conservation of the mountain ecology. In fact if I write about all that we talked with him it will be a full fledged article here.

Raju's family has a few dogs and cats who are very friendly to the guests and the dogs are even trained to accompany them if they go to hikes alone. The dogs are named Goju, Bhalu, Bulbul and Yeti. They walk along and keep looking back to assure you are following them, else they will come back and sit with you while you gaze at the mountains and birds and the scalloped sky all around this valley.

The mountain goats will be curious about you but oblivious to the beauty surrounding them. You feel like you are the odd one in this beautiful place and then you wish to come back and fit in better.

I appreciate what Raju's family is doing at his fruit orchard too, growing everything organically and rearing cows for milk for the family as well as for the guests. Raju's cottage is run completely by his family members and they take pride in it. His two sons, Karan and Varun manage the everyday operations and his wife Lata ji cooks all the food with the help of lady who comes from the village to help in the kitchen chores. His nephew Vicky serves food to all guests and keeps asking for tea and coffee in between. All done with a smile.

Karan and Varun will coordinate with you once they confirm booking. You can get an overnight bus from Delhi, a few buses start from Himachal Bhavan (Mandi House) and others from ISBT, deboard the bus just before the Aut tunnel and Raju will arrange a cab pick up from there. You need to tell the bus driver in advance about your destination so he will let you know when it is time. You can contact Raju and his sons at his facebook page here to book and coordinate for cab pick up.

They feel like an extended family to me now. Isn't that a great achievement? No, not for them, I am talking about myself.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Bihari ke chai-samose aur bharva tamatar bonda : memories from our BHU days

This is not going to be a recipe post but a major food related nostalgia. I was in Banaras last month and I went to the few places we used to throng during our college days and later during research days too. Bihari ki chai, samose and alu chop were universal gourmet food for us and we had the digestive fire to eat it all. Now after almost a quarter of a century gone by the chai and samosa is still the same, he has introduced a few more items to his menu and a few more hands on work. We saw alu stuffed kachoris and masala stuffed tomato fritters simply called 'tamatar' at his shop this time.

It did not help that we were with some of our M.Sc. classmates. We had a reunion of class and enjoyed each oter's company, went to our department, met our teachers etc but Bihari ki dukan brought back the hidden child in all of us.

All of us wanted to spend more time at Bihari's shop just watching at the things flying off the shelves, even though the shelves were just a makeshift tin to stock the fresh samosas for a few minutes. Till they landed in leaf donas and were lapped up hungrily by youngsters.

I just couldn't resist taking out my camera and clicking a few pictures of the men at work. Looks like this tea stall has been doing great business continuously and has been feeding students ever since. Their repertoire has enriched but the taste and the freshness is still the same. You just cannot pick a single favourite out of these simple snacks or mini meals the students enjoy every single day. All of us friends remembered how we used to pester each other for these simple treats :-)

An old man was stuffing masala in emptied tomato halves. This tamatar bonda used to be such a favourite on rainy days I remember.

See how spicy and yummy this filling looks. It has loads of green coriander, roasted peanuts and green peas along with potatoes and spices.

This 'tamatar' is a limited edition snack as it is labour intensive and probably getting similar sized tomatoes would be additional effort too. They fry it in 2-3 batches around lunch time and it is available for just about an hour or so. We were lucky to see them being made and then returned at the right time to have a bite too. I find these kind of street foods healthier than any packaged foods and very satiating and filling too. And when these are deep fried at such high temperature there is no issue of hygiene as well.

The frying oil can be a concern if you are eating them everyday and if the shop is frying the snacks in acrid burnt oil. I saw the oil looked transparent and fresh when I took pictures. A good thing to discover.

See this huge pot of 'matar chhole' being tempered with a spice mix. This is served with a round potato stuffed kachori they make.

See the kachoris being shaped.

How do they find such popular combinations and keep selling them for years, to generations and make such classics. Street food needs some more recognition I feel. It evolves along the changing palate of patrons but the core flavours remain the same.

We did not taste any other snacks this time but had 2 rounds of the famous chai. Bihari ki chai as we used to call it.

The chai has a smoky flavour to it, very milky and just rightly sweet for the temperament one gets when visiting such places.

I missed not having those samose. But then we visited another classmate the next day who is a Professor in Agriculture department and he made us eat those samose :-) there are few things that make a way to reach you at the right time.

One samosa found its way to me too :-)

Friday, March 13, 2015

kathal ki sookhi masaledar subzi made with minimal oil

For some reason Kathal (jackfruit) ki subzi is a Holi tradition in many vegetarian families in Eastern UP. The hardcore non vegetarians cook a spicy mutton dish to set off the gujhia nd malpua sweetness that the festival brings in. Kathal is vegetarians meat and if cooked the same way it actually tastes really good and serves the purpose of being paired with many many sweet dishes on the festive menu.

Although jackfruit fruits all year round in the southern peninsula, the Gangetic plains have a distinct season for jackfruit which starts around the spring time after the harsh winter. This could be a reason why jackfruit is associated with Holi tradition in many vegetarian family in this region. Those who love this meaty vegetable keep cooking till the season lasts and even pickle it. My mom used to make a pickle of jackfruit slices with raw mangoes and I remember we used to like the kathal ka achar (jackfruit pickle) more than kathal ki subzi. Now I don't care for the pickle and gave away a huge jar to my maid.

Coming to kathal ki subzi, this is not one of my favourite subzi to be honest, I like it occasionally for a change. But one or two odd requests about kathal ki subzi have been coming to me and considering kathal is available throughout the year here in Delhi I feel guilty of not cooking it even if it is occasional. It so happened that one day while my weekly vegetable shopping I came across this subziwala who was cutting very fresh medium sized jackfruit and I bought it just because it looked fresh.

New potatoes in the season also make this kathal ki subzi special because the floury sweetish summer potatoes just spoil this spicy curry. Skip adding potatoes if you don't have new potatoes.

Note that most people deep fry the kathal and use a lot of oil to fry the masala paste too when making this subzi traditionally, I avoided kathal ki subzi for the same reason for several year as I had seen my mom cooking it with loads of oil floating in it. Later I figured how to cook kathal with minimal oil and still retain it's flavours. This recipe is my adaptation of the flavours of UP style kathal ki subzi using minimal oil.

This is a pressure cooker recipe to ensure even cooking of jackfruit and letting it absorb the spices without deep frying it.

(4 servings )

peeled and cubed jackfruit 300 gm
boiled peeled, cooled down completely and halved new baby potatoes 200 gm
salt to taste
mustard oil 2 tbsp
hing a pinch or strong hing solution 2 drops
nutmeg and mace powders 1 pinch each

to make a coarse paste..
chopped onion 2 tbsp
dry red chillies 3-4

to make a smooth paste ..
garlic cloves 4-5
ginger slivers 1 tbsp
whole coriander seeds 1 tbsp
cumin seeds 1 tsp
peppercorns 1 tsp
black cardamom 2
green cardamom 2
cloves 5
cinnamon stick 1/2 inch
tejpatta 3
turmeric powder 1 tsp


Heat the oil in a pressure cooker pan and tip in the hing, wait till the hing floats up or the oil gets aromatic with hing. Now tip in the coarse paste along with salt and brown it on medium flame.

Tip in the smooth paste and bhuno it all for about 6-8 minutes on medium heat or till it gets aromatic and looks glazed.

Add the cubed boiled potatoes and jack fruit cubes into the masala mix and toss to coat. Stir fry while tossing it till edges of jackfruit and potatoes start getting golden brown. It takes some time as the amount of cooking oil is less but in a pressure cooker pan it doesn't stick to the bottom thankfully.

Add the nutmeg and mace powders in the last and mix well. Then add 1/2 a cup of water, close the lid and let the pressure build up till the first whistle. Lower the heat and cook for 5 more minutes. If the jack fruit is very fresh and tender it might cook sooner, hard jack fruit mat take some more time.

Let the pressure cooker cool down before you open the lid. Serve hot with or without a garnish of coriander greens. In older times kathal ki subzi was made mostly during summer months, the peak season of jack fruit, and coriander greens were a winter produce so it is not a normal garnish for kathal ki subzi. Even tomatoes are not used in all summer subzi recipes traditionally for the same reason.

The kathal absorbs the spices well owing to it's fibrous porous nature and the texture is quite meaty. So if you add spices similar to meat curries it gives a feel of meat to vegetarians apparently. I have never found it comparable to meat personally but all vegetarians consider it to be the vegetarian's meat. I never question that :-)

Poori is a favored pairing with kathal ki subzi during the spring season and specially holi but in summers it is always served with a cooling cucumber raita, sliced and vinegar soaked onions and plain thin chapatis.