Food In Shillong – What’s good?

The north east of India has a lot to offer especially for someone who is far removed from this culture and traditions. We had absolutely no idea about the food in Shillong that we would encounter. We knew the staple was a rice but beyond that we wanted to be surprised. (surprised is also code for too lazy to do research)

So for the ignorant me, my first agenda when I reached Shillong was to collect as much information as I could but from locals and not from the net and when it came to food in Shillong, this page from the hotel menu at Ri Kynjai, Shillong was my guiding beacon.

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The items that we tried from this menu were Jastem, Khaw Khasi (red rice), Bastenga Chicken, Bastenga Pork, Chirapunjee chicken curry, Doh Thed Sdeh and Do O Pura. My personal favorites out of this list were Doh Thed Sdeh, Bastenga, the red rice of course and Chirapunjee chicken curry. I did not fancy Do O Pura or Jastem much however I did order this as I was a bit under the weather at the time. Also strangely my toddler rekindled his romance with noodles that he had encountered in Singapore.

A popular joint in Shillong happens to be Cafe Shillong which is a hangout place for the youth. This small cafe with walls adorned by football heroes and guitars dishes out some very yummy momos with amazing chutney and lemon tea. Cafe Shillong also has contemporary cuisine for someone who would like to go back to eat something more comfortable.

The local market has some amazing tantalizing tastes in unexpected places. We went searching for the ghost pepper in Bara Bazaar and encountered amazing pineapples, the kind that take you over the moon and back, dried fish (I am not a fan but I know people who are) and pickled bamboo shoots which is again an acquired taste as the oil used is typically strong mustard oil.

Meghalaya definitely has some very unique experiences in store and what I love about the place is that it is eco tourism and responsible tourism that is practiced ( so far atleast). The beauty of the north east is that each place has its unique culture, cuisines and folk tales that are better accessible these days.

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Mountains, Biriyani and a Road to Yercaud

The trip to Yercaud was a grab whatever you can and the baby, pile into the car and go, kind of trip. To be honest I had little or no knowledge of where Yercaud was and what I could expect once there. The drive from Bangalore to Yercaud was amazing with the sun and the clouds flirting by themselves as monsoon was just setting in and the highways in Tamil Nadu are unlike anywhere else in the country.

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Mangoes Dotting The Highway To Salem

The highways in Tamil Nadu I feel should have their own prose and poetry written about them by every travel enthusiast who has driven on them but I will save that for another post. We reached mango dotted Salem in record time and took a break for lunch at Ponrams which is known for Dindigul biriyani and other non veg specialties! The road to Yercaud is winding and full of drastic hair pin bends which make the mountain ranges stand apart from the flat hot plains of Salem.

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The Enticing Menu At Ponrams

We reached around noon at Yercaud on a bright sunny day, we decided to go to the lake in the middle of the hill station which gives Yercaud its name of lake in the forest. Vendors sold aromatic fried snacks and cows ambled lazily around the expanse of the lake. We were acquainted with the vacillating nature of the mountain when the fair weather saw black storm clouds rolling in. We were happily peddling away on the peddle boat when the heavens opened up inorder to test our leg muscles as we peddled as hard as we could as our toddler sat wedged between us. To be honest, the experience of the sudden downpour and the lake changing its nature from inviting to tumultuous was quite scary!

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The View From The Windy Mountain

We managed to get back in one piece and got into the car drenched and drove back to the hotel were we had booked for the night. As we reached the newly laid road to our hotel which was on top of the hill, we were greeted by a river in its stead. The rain poured down the mountain taking the road along with it and our car just could not possibly drive up the river/ road. After waiting and trying for two hours we parked the car there and walked up to the hotel.

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An Unexpected Adventure

Needless to say we were quite exhausted with this entire adventure and decided to call it a night and order in room service. The food at Yercaud was one thing that made the entire trip quite exiting. That night we dined on tribal dishes of moongil biriyani which is biriyani baked inside bamboo and kaliman (claypot) varuval chicken curry. The food was a big high for us and a worthy reward.

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The kid can’t wait to feast like a tribal king

The next day we saw the sun rise from our temporary mountain abode amidst the mist and the vastness of the forests while Salem below slowly woke up to the left over light that the mountain sends its way. Our next destination was Killiyur Falls which is pretty if only people were more considerate and did not leave behind wafer wrappers, used diapers and other man made waste that spoils the beauty of this lovely exclusive mountain with hidden secrets.

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Killiyur Falls

The short weekend getaway to Yercaud was rejuvenating and gave us the dash of adventure that will be sharp memory for all of us including the kid who came back and narrated the incident when the river swallowed the road and the car got stuck thus proving that travel does make one a story teller!

A Blind Date with Myself

Alright, so this post is not really about  blind date I went on but it is about feeling for the first time how being blind must be like. Closing your eyes, switching off lights and being blindfolded does not really make the world as dark as it becomes if either you lose sight or the world suddenly plunges into complete darkness.

An adventurous girlfriend and me decided to go for lunch to a restaurant called Dialogue In The Dark and my experiences both humbled me, confused me and stirred up a lot of feelings which I wasn’t sure I knew of. The restaurant is based on a social experiment which started in Germany, the thought being that people depend on the sense of sight the most thus ignoring or not developing the other senses as much as they should.

The restaurant has a pre ordering system where you choose whether you would like to go for a 2 course, 3 course or 4 course meal. Once you have decided and paid, you are lead to a locker where you have to deposit your bags, phones and all belongings. After this is done, you enter a vault like door which shuts close behind you plunging you into utter darkness, this was darkness like I had never known. Darkness that was black, I expected my eyes to adjust to any sliver of light that might be there inside but there was only darkness my open eyes saw absolutely nothing.

It was scary, unsettling at first and then a voice came through who introduced himself as our guide and told us how to navigate through the darkness and enter his world. He took us to our table seated us and got us bottles of water. He asked us our meal preferences and my friend being a vegetarian was insistent that he make sure she is served a vegetarian meal, he laughed off her concern. It was a also an exercise on trust as the experience asks you to place trust on a person whom you have never met.

Blind people go through this on a daily basis especially in a country like India which is not disabled friendly, as they have to rely many a times on strangers to help them navigate new places. We were served our surprise lunch while the guide helped us find our bearings with the spoon, fork, etc. I was completely disarmed as I tried my best to eat without seeing and social table manners went for a toss.

After the meal, he served us dessert which I found  to be really good. After the meal he asked us to identify what we had eaten, though I knew that I had eaten chicken, I could not really tell the different starters apart. Possibly I do not really have an advanced palate and surely I rely a lot on my sense of sight.

The meal at Dialogue In the Dark was a very emotional experience for me, emotions that I could not really peg down. I would definitely recommend that people are not claustrophobic or afraid of the dark to give it a try. Even if you are afraid of the dark you would be put to ease by experienced hands who knows this world inside and out. Dialogue In The Dark is in two cities Hyderabad and Bangalore, the next one is slated to open in Chennai, do try the restaurant and tell me your experience.

12 Tips for the First Time Traveller to China

China is a great country to travel and explore and we made many great memories on the trip. This was my first trip to this great and diverse country and we got to experience some new cultures, way of life and cuisines. China has rich past and a highly developed language that has been used since ancient history.

Chinese population converses in Mandarin and Cantonese along with many other dialects and English is not a popular language which is cause for many adventurous for the English speaking traveler when traveling in China. Since I did not find a comprehensive list of tips before traveling to China, I decided to jot down some of my recommendations from my experiences in traversing this great and unique country.

  1. Forward your emails– Google and Facebook do not work in China hence forward your emails from Gmail to your other accounts such as outlook, yahoo, etc. if you would like to keep in touch. Viber and WhatsApp and good ways to connect or call folks back home. Baidu is the search engine that is popularly used in China.
  2. Use the metro – Most major cities in China have a well-connected metro system which you can navigate without learning mandarin. Many of the signs are in English as well and you can purchase tickets from a kiosk at the station.
  3. Click pictures of the taxi card– Chinese streets and address have an English name and completely different Chinese name. So if you want to travel by cab to a particular place ask your hotel to write it down for you or search online for the place and keep pictures of the place with the Chinese names prominently mentioned.
  4. Make a friend who knows the language– This tip comes handy when the taxi driver is hurtling the cab in the opposite direction from the one intended by you shaking his head and saying No, No, No quite empathetically. A call to a friend who can converse with the driver and explain to him exactly where you want to go comes as a God send in such situations.
  5. Use a tour company or tour guide
    Forbidden Kingdom, Beijing China
    Forbidden Kingdom, Beijing China

    If like me you can’t make local friends on such short notices it is a good idea to travel with a tour guide or go with a tour company. Most tour companies in China can provide you an English speaking tour guide and a driver with a car. Traveling with a tour guide is great especially if you want to explore places that are outside the city limits.

  6. Try the local cuisine– Each province in China has different dishes and entirely different cuisines, eat local cuisines and try new places as much as you can. For example one can sample a variety of bamboo dishes in Sichuan and Muslim influenced food in the north west of China. Most of the cities and restaurants prepare beef, pork, chicken, lamb and of course vegetables, it is rare to find places that have other forms of meat contrary to the popular stereotype.
  7. Ordering at restaurants– Most restaurants in the city have a picture menu which you can point and order. In case you want to order something specific ask your friend, concierge or tour guide to write down a few safe options for you in Mandarin.
  8. Bargaining in China
    Wu Garden, Shanghai
    Yu Garden, Shanghai

    Chinese markets are a great place to shop. There are all types of markets in China from high end malls to flea markets and fake merchandise markets. Most of the merchandise you can get are good quality too. Bargaining in local markets happens over the calculator where the shop keeper would enter their price and you are expected to key in the amount you are willing to pay. There are apps available that can be downloaded which give the correct price that you can pay at a fake market.

  9. Say no to Touts – Resist the urge to buy that good looking phone which a stranger wants to sell to you at the departure gate at the airport. There are all sorts of scams that you can imagine and some that you can’t. Be on your guard and be mindful of the local laws.
  10. Paying the uninformed tourist price– This is one lesson I learnt the hard way. The concierge at my hotel sold me tickets for a hop on hop off bus tour in Shanghai for my toddler and me. Half way through the tour I realized that there weren’t many Chinese tourists on the bus which was not the case at all the major attractions that day. As luck would have it I lost my ticket and the tour operator at the hop on site would not let me on without me buying another ticket for a 100 RMB. As I contemplated my next move in order to reach the hotel with my toddler I chanced upon another tour bus that was operating on the same route also with English and French sound tracks which cost only 30 RMB. Hence the day was saved and a precious lesson learnt to research the different options available before approaching the hotel for advice.
  11. Be prepared for security checks– Metro stations and other tourist attractions in China have security checks hence it is advisable to not lug metal around when traveling in China especially if you have a lot of attractions to cover in a day.
  12. Smog is a serious issue in China– Major cities in China like Beijing and Shanghai grapple with pollution and smog advisories are issued. It is advisable to limit travel on such days and/ or wear masks and protective glasses. We were pretty lucky not to have got stuck with smog when we were in China.