Monday, July 31, 2017

dinner, Made in Punjab

After arriving in New Delhi, we visited the DLF Mall of India in Noida, a city that is part of India's National Capital Region. The mall is said to be the second biggest mall in the country and is described as a destination mall, which I think means that this mall is like a tourist spot (with a wide selection of dining and entertainment options).

For dinner, we trooped to a restaurant called Made in Punjab. By the time we got here, I've already tried the food in two states in East India (West Bengal and Odisha) and in Telangana. From these experiences, I had formed the idea that Indian food is definitely more than the dhal and the curries that I've previously been exposed to in the USA and in the Philippines.

I was amazed that Indian cuisine had so much more to offer. In Made in Punjab, we were wowed by a famous Punjabi export, the tikka, which I liked very much when I first tried it in California. I haven't finished working my head around Mughal cuisine, but now I was faced with the cuisine inherited from the Sikh Empire. My first impression is that there's a lot more meat and milk in this cuisine. The cheese (paneer) here was so good too! And the flavours were bolder and rounder here. 

I had an absolutely excellent time dining in Made in Punjab. I felt like I was just scraping the tip of the iceberg with my dinner here... how much more diversity in cuisine would I encounter when I go to yet another city? A very fascinating Indian food journey indeed. 

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Expert elicitation workshops in East India

Why were we in India in the first place? 

Matty, Jhoanne, and I flew in from the Philippines to join Arindam and Suva in the first of our activities under the Drivers of Food Choice project in East India. The article below is a piece I wrote on paper (it's been a while since I wrote a first draft by hand) while we were in a plane from Kolkata to New Delhi. By the time we landed in New Delhi, the piece had gone around the whole team for their revisions and was ready for submission to the editors back in IRRI headquarters. 

Below is the piece as it got published in IRRI's news section a few days ago. 


Enhancing nutrition through gastronomic research

Expert elicitation workshop in Kolkata

New Delhi, INDIA—“To find effective interventions that can improve nutritional security for poor families in eastern India, researchers must first better understand what drives their food choices,” says Dr. Matty Demont, senior economist at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and leader of the project, Drivers of Food Choice in eastern India (DFC).

To improve this understanding, IRRI recently held expert elicitation workshops on gastronomic systems research in Bhubaneswar, Odisha (18 July) and Kolkata, West Bengal (21 July). Participants included nutritionists, food technologists, home scientists, restaurateurs, and chefs. They captured the wide range of culinary diversity of food options available to households in low- and middle-income urban and rural communities in Odisha and West Bengal.

According to Dr. Arindam Samaddar, agricultural anthropologist based at the IRRI-India Office, bringing such a group together is key to elicit nutritional interventions that are practical and sensible for consumers and for restaurateurs.

DFC, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and UK Aid and managed by the University of South Carolina, USA, aims to identify entry points for culturally acceptable and context-specific nutritional interventions. The project is using a gastronomic systems research framework, which is a new paradigm developed by IRRI.

“In this framework, socioeconomic status and culture are believed to dictate the various food consumption occasions, which then dictate the dishes that are served and consumed,” points out Dr. Rosa Paula Cuevas, IRRI grain quality specialist. “These dishes are made up of ingredients that affect cooking and eating quality and the nutritional content of the dishes. In the gastronomic system, there are three possible entry points for nutritional interventions: occasion, dish, and ingredient. The framework is also instrumental in understanding drivers of consumer choice for rice varieties and may help further refine varietal improvement targets in rice breeding.”

This framework shows promise in applicability beyond the DFC project. “I would love to follow the framework,” says Dr. Anindita Chakravarti, assistant professor at Maharani Kasiswari College and workshop participant.  “It will be extremely beneficial for the work that we do with poor Indian communities.”

These two workshops were the first of a series of activities of the DFC project, which runs through 2018. The next activities include consumer surveys and behavioral experiments that will use a novel food app being developed and piloted during the project.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

chicken egg rolls à la Nizam's

I thought that our East Indian food adventure was at its end as our brief stay in New Delhi was ending. However, Arindam proved me wrong by bringing us to a restaurant called Nizam's Kathi Kabab in Connaught Place.

It looked like a regular restaurant, very unassuming and very homey... that is, until I noticed all the certificates hanging on the wall. These were the awards that the restaurant has won over the past few years for being one of the best dining places in the city. Along with the aromas wafting from the kitchen, I thought that I was in for another round of extraordinary gastronomy.

We ordered chicken egg rolls. These were so delicious! At first, I thought that these were similar to shawarma; however, these chicken egg rolls were greasier than the typical shawarma. It was a good idea to not indulge myself with a heavy lunch before the trip to Nizam's because my egg roll (in the picture) was so filling that I thought it was good as a full meal (but still with a niggling feeling that it's not because there's no rice).

While I was munching on my egg roll, I thought that once again, an activity draws to a close and it involved meat wrapped. It's like the Avengers going to a shawarma place after saving New York City from Loki's attack (in a post-credit scene). However, instead of a group of superheroes quietly chewing on their food, I was in a talkative group of foodies discussing what the next stage of our project would look like.

Friday, July 28, 2017

visiting the Taj Mahal

Why did I even want to wake up at 5am on a weekend?!? But the day's full of promise; after all, we were visiting one of the world's most famous landmarks: the Taj Mahal! Just to be sure that I had something to eat, I brought some of the choco chip cookies from my hotel room pantry. I shouldn't have worried at all; our driver stopped at a popular rest area to allow us to have a toilet break and to have some substantial breakfast two hours into our trip to Agra (from New Delhi).

I am so thankful for that pit stop because soon after, we were stuck in a very long traffic queue in the expressway. Apparently, there were people on the highway, causing the traffic to slow into a halt. People in cars decided to go down to have a look but I stayed in our car, content with watching the others and the landscape while waiting for the traffic to ease up.

A few hours later, we finally reached Agra, a city by the banks of the Yamuna River in the state of Uttar Pradesh. We were almost at the Taj Mahal!

I had thought that the Taj Mahal was close to the expressway. However, to get to the landmark, we still had to drive along an inner road until our car had to park at the ticket office. From there, we decided to walk with our tour guide to the Taj Mahal.

Just one problem, however. The clouds overhead were threatening to dump rain on us and we didn't have enough umbrellas with us! Only Jhoanne brought hers. Mine was in the hotel. And because of the heat, nobody thought of carrying jackets.

As we entered the Taj Mahal compound, the thunderstorm started in earnest; the mausoleum was masked by the haze and lightning kept zipping through the sky seemingly near the Taj Mahal. I was thinking that it might not be such a good idea to be out in the open in that thunderstorm. Good thing that there was a gate under which we could take shelter from the storm. We waited it out with other tourists who actually got drenched by the rain. 

The change in the appearance of the Taj Mahal, thanks to the mist lifting, was nothing short of dramatic. The colour of the marble really stood out of the grey clouds after the rain! We could clearly see that parts of the Taj Mahal was under some sort of repair, perhaps cleaning... and I remembered a text I read about how the Indian government was taking efforts to protect the building from pollution.

Rightly so because the Taj Mahal is one of the country's cultural heritage from the Mughal period (being completed in 1643). And it's the grandest expression of love: the king Shah Jahan had the mausoleum built for his wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Her tomb is found in the middle of the building, surrounded by the most precious of marbles inlaid with precious and semi-precious gemstones. The calligraphy on the mausoleum's exteriors is a beautiful example of forced perspective: the characters were bigger at the top so that they would look like they were the same size as the characters closer to the base of the building.

Aside from the mausoleum, Shah Jahan had a mosque and a guesthouse built on either side of Taj Mahal. Our guide said that this was to maintain symmetry, an important element in Mughal architecture. Visually, these two buildings were distinct because the builders used red stones rather than white marble.

As our tour in and around the Taj Mahal complex drew to a close, I couldn't help but notice other parts of the complex, struggling to be noticed... but how could they compete with the majesty of the Taj Mahal, right? Sadly, many of the structures appear to be slowly swallowed by the jungle; a testament to man's constant struggle to tame nature and how nature normally wins, provided that enough time has passed. 

Our tour guide (I forgot his name), showed us other interesting features of the Taj Mahal and gave us a few insights on how important this place is for preserving Mughal heritage. For instance, I am fascinated by the idea that the present-day descendants of the original stoneworkers are still involved in the care of the mausoleum complex. He also showed us interesting details about the gemstones inside the mausoleum. At one point, I got blessed (according to our guide) by one who appeared to be an imam; this guy also caught us by surprise by bellowing inside the mausoleum... something about demonstrating an acoustic character of the building. 

A few hours after we started running for shelter, we finished our tour and we were back to where we started learning about the love story between Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal. We were quite wet and disheveled but we definitely had fun and we learned a lot of new things. 

What a culture vulture weekend, indeed!

Thursday, July 27, 2017

lunching at Arsalan

A trip to Kolkata would not be complete without a visit to Arsalan Restaurant, which serves Mughlai cuisine. Mughlai cuisine was developed when India was a Mughal empire (from the 1500s).  The cuisine had strong elements borrowed from Central Asia fused with Indian ingredients. 

Such fusion of cultures and flavours led to dishes such as chicken biryani. Previously, I've eaten this dish in Bahar Multicuisine Restaurant in Hyderabad and I found the Hyderabadi version to have a strong personality, intimidating almost, because of the combination of strong flavours. Naturally, I was very curious about the Bengali version; after all, the introduction made by Arindam and Matty before the dish arrived made the biryani sound delicious.

And indeed it was so yummy! I have to admit, though, that I still prefer the Hyderabadi chicken biryani. Having said that, I could say that the Arsalan version is the mellower cousin that still packs a good punch; not overwhelming but still memorable. It is definitely not a pushover to the Bahar version. Plus, I particularly liked the idea that I had to dig through all that yummy basmati rice to get to the chicken in Arsalan... but wait, there's more down there... a potato! 

As we wound down our lunch entrée, in came this delicious dessert called Firni. It was sweet and milky, with a touch of some spice, and served in earthenware. I couldn't get enough of this dessert because it reminded me of ice cream. Good luck, dear stomach... my lactose intolerance would surely act up after eating a serving of this.

So there I was, worried about my stomach after eating firni. Good thing that Arsalan provided a digestive called Mukhwas. It's composed of some aromatic seeds and sugar cubes. It had a fresh, almost minty taste. And it helped calm my stomach too. 

Wow! The food at Arsalan was great! I'd love to go back and eat there again someday. Find a reason to immerse more in Mughlai cuisine, right? Why not?

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

A tame session of wildlife photography

During my first trip to India, I was able to go on a bird photography walk at the ICRISAT headquarters in Hyderabad. This time, once again with my Canon Powershot SX720 HS, I went to four cities (Bhubaneswar, Kolkata, Agra, and New Delhi) with Matty, Arindam, Jhoanne, and Suva... and I tried to capture photos of urban wildlife when I had the chance.

In Bhubaneswar, Odisha, I was able to see some ducks at the Mayfair Lagoon. Matty spotted a red iguana lounging in one of the chaises longues (why my camera was dangling by its lanyard on my neck that time, I do not know), and Jhoanne and I were startled when a Hanuman langur (the largest uncaged monkey I've seen) jumped on the café's roof while we were having breakfast there. I was quite upset that I didn't bring my camera to breakfast and had to use my phone's camera to take a photo of it... at least I got it. I've only seen cows in farms, either in cattle farms or free-range in pastures. But in Bhubaneswar, it was my first time to see cows roaming the city streets. It was such a foreign concept to me!



Hanuman langur

Cow (Bos indicus)

In Kolkata, West Bengal, Jhoanne and I were able to visit a few of the historical sites of the former capital of the British Raj, which allowed me to take photos of a few birds. I took photos of an Indian house crow and a house sparrow at the Queen Victoria Memorial. I saw the oriental magpie robin at St John's Church. I observed a bird of prey looming above us while we were traversing the Maa flyover en route to Arsalan, so I followed it until it landed on a tree along the Mirania Lake. It's one of those times when I felt happy that we were stuck in traffic and my camera had 80x zoom. 

Indian house crow (Corvus splendens)

House sparrow (Passer domesticus)

Oriental magpie robin (Copsychus saularis)

Black kite (Milvus migrans)

In Agra, Matty, Jhoanne, and I went to visit one of the most famous of Indian landmarks, the Taj Mahal. The rain that we got caught in, however, provided us with a different experience from what those who visit in the summer got: we were able to see birds hunting in the gardens straight after the thunderstorm passed. It's the first time I've seen a cattle egret that isn't white (and I think that it's all about the bird's diet). And then there's this bird which I haven't identified yet. I'm guessing that it's some species of raptor; I'm still trying to identify it.

Cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis)
Back in New Delhi, Matty, Jhoanne, and I were billeted at a hotel in which my room's window looked out towards the garden. Out there, I was able to watch a lot of rock pigeons flocked by benches, and the occasional squirrel. On the road to the IRRI country office in the city, Matty spotted a macaque crossing the road and quickly whipped out his phone to take a photo. Apparently, the macaque is quite a common sight because the pedestrian walking on the opposite side of the road and our driver didn't even flinch... while the three of us passengers were so excited to see it.

Rock pigeon (Columba livia)


Tuesday, July 25, 2017

They call it "kabaddi"

I was having dinner with Arindam, Matty, and Suva at Bhojohori Manna when I looked up to the telly and saw a game I initially described as patintero on steroids. Patintero is a street game I grew up playing (and something my nephews and nieces have no concept of, with their tablets and smartphones). The objective of the game is to cross over a line without being tagged by the person guarding the line. This is why I was quite shocked that a game that looked similar was being played by muscular athletes as an actual sport!

Turns out that this sport is called kabaddi. The players' objective was to cross from one side of the court to another, and then go back to the "home" side, all while reciting "kabaddi". The opposite team had to make sure that the other team couldn't go to the other side of the court and/or they couldn't return to the home side. See, sounds very much like patintero...

But kabaddi is a whole different level altogether because it's a contact sport that reminds me also of the intensity of rugby. To me, it felt like it could get painful fast, really fast! I don't think I'd like to see it live at this point.

Monday, July 24, 2017

on seeing transgenders as beggars in Kolkata

I come from a country regarded as one of the friendliest towards the LGBT community; though there is still discrimination, the community is tolerated. Members of the community are integrated into the rest of the society economically and socially, typically visible in occupations involving beauty and show business.

On my first extended trip outside my country, I stayed in a suburb in Sydney where my professor said the highest concentrations of same-sex couples lived. Each night, when I walked back from Uni to the terrace house I was staying at, I could hear flamboyant productions being performed at a pub along King Street with "It's Raining Men" being the song the performers close every single night I was there. And I was thinking then, "Don't they know other songs?!? Why do they always sing this when I walk back from school?!?" I didn't know then that it was a gay bar. Melissa had to point it out to me when I told her about my observation.

Anyway, my prior exposure to cities where LGBT are fully assimilated into society is why I felt a conceptual discordance in Kolkata upon seeing men dressed as women, with voices as low as men's, begging from people in vehicles when the cars were halted at red lights. To me, it seems that these individuals are not accepted by society; hence, they resort to begging. But then, my Asian history lessons back in high school (if my memory serves me correctly) said that eunuchs (who are included in this classification of transgenders) were well-respected back in the day. So I was wondering what happened so that they're now treated this badly.

Apparently, my first impression is flawed. A bit of digging shows that these transgenders, known as hijra, kothi, kinnar, shiv-shakti, and aravani, actually are legally recognised since 2014. However, there seems to be a discomfort with being labelled as the "third sex", perhaps (among many more practical reasons) because of the long historical significance of these groups of people in Indian society and the current labels used on them are based on Western ideological constructs of gender. This is probably just the tip of the iceberg, a pondering triggered by seeing two men dressed as women, and I don't claim that I understand the deeper cultural contexts of this particular societal sector. So don't expect an academic treatise from me. I am not well-read into the topic, which is why I have difficulty processing what I saw on the streets of Kolkata.

I don't know if LGBT communities in other countries realise how fortunate they are. Whenever I watch their rallies and parades for equal rights and freedom of expression in the news, I've always thought that these are just a show of flamboyance (with their flags and their beautiful costumes); however, encountering these transgenders in Kolkata made me do a double take. Life is hard for these people and I hope that each time the LGBT people organise rallies, they also dedicate such demands for equality for their brethren who don't enjoy the same rights that they already have and who end up begging in order to survive.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Visiting Mother Teresa

For someone who isn't from India, my first thought when hearing the name Calcutta is Mother Teresa helping the multitudes of poor people. This thought has perpetuated the idea, in me and perhaps in many more naive people, that India's economy didn't improve since Mother Teresa's time. This has been proven wrong, of course; despite the millions of people who do still need development aid.

Mother Teresa's convent, the Missionaries of Charity, is located in the southern part (but felt like the financial centre) of the city now called Kolkata. Jhoanne and I got down on AJC Bose Road and entered a narrow alley; we then entered a recess in the wall and ended up at the convent.

The first floor is where Mother Teresa's tomb is found. I thought that this was the end of our pilgrimage; instead, it turned out to be the beginning of a contemplative evening (at least for me). We were met by nuns who hurried us towards the tomb because we arrived as the convent was closing its doors to visitors. At Mother Teresa's tomb, we encountered a woman who kept wiping and kissing the marble surface of the tomb. She didn't speak; maybe she was in a period of silence. Even though I'm from the Philippines, where the biggest population of Roman Catholics is in Southeast Asia, I'm not used to seeing someone so dedicated to a specific task for someone's tomb. It's as if the dead's been newly laid to rest there. It was a disturbing scene for me because Mother Teresa's been dead for 20 years already. However, who was I to ask how someone manifests his/her faith, right?

After visiting the tomb, we were encouraged to visit the vigil that was happening upstairs. Since the Motherhouse is a convent, and my experience of being in one involved collecting my sister's effects from the dormitory (only women were allowed in) at Assumption College, I was surprised to see that men were allowed to participate in the vigil. The laypersons who were also present at vigil must be volunteers; those who tended the sick and the dying along with the nuns. A few minutes in, Jhoanne and I proceeded to leave the convent because we still had to go to a dinner sponsored by Bhojohori Manna, a famous restaurant in the state of West Bengal.

On the ride back to our hotel, the Swiss Hotel Kolkata, I was digesting what I saw. I felt that the  laypersons at the convent were those who were seeking some form of catharsis or those who wanted to be part of something bigger than themselves... after all, they traveled all the way to India even if they could as easily volunteer to help the destitute in their own countries. It was here, particularly in Kolkata, where what they were looking for probably was (or felt tangible). 

It was an emotionally charged experience because it's difficult to feel unmoved after seeing poverty on the streets in this city and then these people trying to do something for the poor, particularly for the untouchables.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

British vibes in Kolkata

It's my first time in Kolkata and Arindam organised a field trip for me and Jhoanne. This city used to be the capital of the British Empire in India, if my memory of Asian history lessons isn't failing me. But it is also widely known as Mother Teresa's territory; her Missionaries of Charity is in the heart of Kolkata, working closely with the poor and the sick... images of poverty in this part of the world has stuck in my head so it's such a surprise to hear again about the British cultural heritage.

Our driver brought us around the city and let us visit the Queen Victoria Memorial (built after Her Royal Highness died) and the St John's Church (the third oldest church in the city). The architecture of the Queen Victoria Memorial is breathtaking. I felt like I wasn't in India, but rather in a European city. On the other hand, St John's reminded me of the churches and the old buildings in Australia. These weren't Roman Catholic churches; hence, the aesthetics didn't include influences from the religion I belong to. Instead, I thought that it reminded me more of the Anglican church I visited in one of my long walks in Brisbane. 

Peppered in the city's older districts are red buildings. I thought it strange that after the aesthetic elegance of the white and taupe structures, we'd come face to face with red buildings. The driver told us that these red buildings used to be government offices during the British colonial period.  I couldn't understand why the British upper lip did not translate to understated and elegant colour choices... instead, they went for one of the most vibrant of all: red.

If I have the opportunity to visit Kolkata again, I plan to sign up on a heritage tour so I could understand the architecture better. An afternoon around this city is just not enough.