Humourist Soumya tells us of the many adventures of his, in the company of others, between 1983 and 2013. He mixes humour, food, drinks, fancy-free, and footloose bohemian life of a backpacker, in the weekly column, exclusively in Different Truths.
I am a foodie. My girth gives credence to the fact. But when I try to remember specific feasts, it is not the quality of the meals, and definitely not the quantity, but the associated memories, the ambience, the locale, the company and the circumstances in which they were enjoyed that make them memorable. Often it was poor fare by any gourmet standards or any standards at all, but the enjoyment derived beats Michelin rated chefs hollow. Not that I usually dine in that style, but had the good fortune of sampling a few. Enough of this preamble; Listed are some meals I vividly remember, despite being in an elevated spiritual plane when partaking in them.
In no particular order:
Dal Bati and Chhach —Rantambore, 1983
Venue: A remote hamlet near Ranthambore in Rajasthan.
Company: Three more backpackers, from Shillong, Mumbai, and Australia respectively.
Hosts: A bevy of Rajasthani belles, wives and daughters of illegal wood gatherers and herdsmen, giggling behind their veils, and conversing through sign language and an incomprehensible dialect.
Menu: Lumps of dough made of Bajra roasted directly on the wood fire, crumbled with homemade ghee, and some sort of lentil. This is Dal Bati, a rural Rajasthani staple, one helping of which is enough to bloat a city dweller. This is washed down with buttermilk or chhach in huge brass tumblers. Even the chillum enhanced appetite wasn’t sufficient to consume more.
This was during a backpacking trip in Rajasthan when we were denied legal entry in the Tiger Reserve and given shelter by complete strangers in a nearby hamlet. The ladies fed us, found our demeanour and appetites hilarious when we showed helplessness in having more than one helping. Purdah was maintained by them staying just indoors and roaring with laughter from behind ghunghats (veils). We were referred to as “Bawre” – the crazy ones in an endearing way. We slept in their courtyard and later entered the forest illegally with their menfolk, carrying a packed lunch of chana and gur, or, as the Aussi called it, “nuts and sugar”. Suggestions for reimbursement of costs was considered extremely bad manners as we were guests.
Goat Intestine, Red Rice and Ghanti –Kalpa, 1986
Venue: A high altitude village in the Kinnaur region in Himachal Pradesh
Ambience: Dancing in the moonlight in a grassy knoll, snow peaks all around, beautiful Kinnauri belles forming long swaying human chains
Company: My 12 fellow trekkers (including my wife) and most of the Kinnauri villagers gathered for the Poornima Mela or full moon fair
Hosts: The entire village represented by their Headman
Menu: Ghanti, which is a sort of apple cider, goat intestine cooked, I don’t know how.
This was the 12th day of the Kinnaur Kailash trek, courtesy Indian Mountaineering Federation, in the inner line area of Kinnaur. As in those days, the area was inaccessible and prohibited to tourists, locals had not met outsiders and at every camp we were greeted by the nearest village and joined in on their impromptu singing and dancing to folk songs around campfires drinking prodigious amounts of Ghanti, which is the local brew made from apples and apricots. But the grand finale was the new moon fair, where we were special invitees and honoured guests. A goat was sacrificed, and after many hours of inebriated dancing and singing incomprehensible songs, we had the starter made of goat’s intestines and some kind of red rice or grain washed down with even more Ghanti, till I passed out. I was later carried back to camp in procession by the villagers singing improper Bengali songs I had taught them.
Unidentified Meat, Rice, and Millet Chang — Yumthang, 2001
Venue: The village drinking hole in a small hamlet in North Sikkim
Ambience: Low smoky stone room with a blazing fire on which cauldrons are bubbling, squatting on Yak skins on low stools with a bench in front, an old lady in exotic garb smiling and serving, crowd of Lepcha villagers quizzing us in unknown tongue, and we are responding with the two Lepcha words we know.
Menu: Chang, served as a pile of fermented millet heaped in a large cut bamboo, into which boiling water is poured from a battered ancient brass samovar, and the resultant concoction is sipped through thin bamboo pipes. Accompanied by bits of meat of which you can’t guess the origin.
Company: My wife, daughter, our driver-cum-guide and local Lepcha villagers
In North Sikkim during a homestay in this high altitude village, this was the most exotic pub I have seen, which includes Indiana Jones films.
Fish Crab and Unknown Bird, Roasted on Open Fire and River Chilled Mahua – Jona, Jharkhand, 2002
Venue: Open air among rocks and roaring water, at the Jona falls near Ranchi.
Ambience: Bathing in the falls, deserted thanks to fear of Maoists. The lone tribal man fishing and trapping in the river turned out not to be a terrorist but a gracious villager who offered to share his meal.
Menu: Freshly caught fish and crab, gutted, stuck on sticks and roasted on an open fire. Ditto small bird trapped or shot with sling. Served on leaves. Washed down with Mahua, the delicious elixir made from the red flowering tree, which intoxicates elephants, bears, deer, monkey, and birds, from old beer bottles, cooled in the rushing stream.
Company: My colleague from Ranchi, who knew of this place, and the suspected red menace.
Having a day to kill after a business trip to Ranchi got over early; we visited the now deserted Jona falls and had this memorable experience, which made me miss the flight back. Our tribal host was happy with whatever we offered him. He didn’t ask, nor demur, nor bargain, merely gravely accepted whatever was offered.
Nun Cha, and Mathi – Kashmir, 2013
Venue: A Kashmiri wooden house in a village, somewhere on route Gulmarg
Ambience: Squatting on a carpet in the central room of the traditional house, surrounded by a bevy of stunning women, please note noburkha or veil, all relatives of our driver, being quizzed as to the first outsiders or Indians as they called us, to ever visit their home.
Menu: Salt tea or Nun cha, a Kashmiri staple not available in shops, which involves night long soaking and hours of boiling, and is more like soup, and Mathi, or home-baked salted pastries.
It happened by chance when stopping for Kava after a Wazwan at well-known eateries on route Gulmarg. Our driver, whom my wife suspected of being a terrorist, confided on quizzing that this isn’t what they have at home. When I wanted to sample the home fare, he invited us home. Leaving the main road, and finally the car, we walked down narrow lanes to the wooden house, our host answering every villager’s questions on the way. His sister hosted the tea party, and everyone posed for photographs. Other than security forces on search operations, we were the first outsiders in their village in three decades
Scrambled Eggs, Sausages, and Bread and an Array of Liquid, Herbal and Chemical Elixirs for Spiritual Upliftment and Expansion of Consciousness — Delhi, 1985
Venue: My barsati bachelor pad in Delhi.
Ambience: Impromptu potluck party, which was also my wedding feast.
Company: My new bride and a whole bunch of disreputable friends.
Menu: Being potluck, everyone brought something to ensure high spirits, whether liquid, solid or whatever, but no one remembered the food. A sober neighbour went out and got a lot of eggs, sausages, bread, and butter and that was the meal that cheered everyone but my wife.
Being a sudden decision and being broke, my post-elopement party went like this. We left a room and terrace full of comatose people and went to face my unsuspecting parents and furious in-laws.
Photos from the Internet
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Soumya Mukherjee is an alumnus of St Stephens College and Delhi School of Economics. He earns his daily bread by working for a PSU Insurance company, and lectures for peanuts. His other passions, family, friends, films, travel, food, trekking, wildlife, music, theater, and occasionally, writing. He has been published in many national newspapers of repute. He has published his first novel, Memories, a novella, hopefully, the first of his many books. He blogs as well.