Jul 29, 2016

Delhi Drama

Here we are at the Delhi airport!
 Alas we must take a taxi because Delhi's new public transit system does not connect with the airport yet.

And we were off across the grand metropolis of the nation's capitol in an AC cab in no time.  At every stoplight in Delhi you will see small bands of beggars. They will visibly peruse all passengers of the waiting vehicles in an effort to "spot the foreigner." Granted the beggar situation in Delhi isn't nearly as bad as it was 10 years ago but they are still a common sight. They know foreigners are more generous than the local population so be prepared for the onslaught if you look foreign.

These two youngsters have spotted Bibi in her taxi and are now performing their routine. The girl in blue is playing a little drum and singing while the boy with a painted on mustache twirls a doohickey atop his cap.

Usually Bibi brings a few packets of prepared snacks or some homemade cookies wrapped in cling film to give to these sorts but unfortunately not today. I never give money because I don't want to encourage this activity as a career and these kids should be in school. 

After a few minutes the girl in blue figures out I'm not rolling the windows of the taxi down to donate and am taking her photo. She doesn't seem to happy about this and begins yelling curses at me and calling me a miser.
Oh my.
I think she's a bit angry and truly disgusted with me at this point.

That's it.
She's had it with Bibi and the light is turning green. She's taking her drum and leaving.
"DA FA!" she yells (roughly translated that means "GO TO HELL!")
Oh well, as the kids say nowadays, "Bye Felicia!"

Next stop is Srinagar!

Jul 27, 2016

Nepali Style Chicken Curry

Khukura Nepal maso ko spicy

From the heart of the Himalayas comes this delicious chicken curry. Chicken is marinated then slowly simmered until delectably tender in a richly seasoned sauce of traditional Nepali spices. Don't let that long list of ingredients in this recipe intimidate you, this is one of the easiest and tastiest chicken curries you'll ever make!

There are so many ethnicities in the tiny nation of Nepal it's really hard to generalize the cuisine. I learned this recipe from a lovely lady who once ran a small restaurant in the town of Malekhu on the banks of the Trishuli river in Nepal. She firmly insisted this chicken needs to marinate overnight or a full day for the best flavor. Although everyone cooks their chicken curry a little differently the marination in oil is typical of many Nepali meat curries. The liberal use of spices such as black cardamom, fenugreek, and cassia leaves or "tej patta" is common to many Nepali dishes. If you've never made a curry this is a great "first recipe" to try. It really is incredibly simple to make but so scrumptious!

1kg/2lbs chicken, skinless, bone in, cut into 8 pieces
2 cassia leaves/tej patta
2 inch piece cassia bark/dalchini (or cinnamon stick)
Grind to smooth paste for marinade:
1/3 C cooking oil (I use rice bran oil but tempered mustard oil would be authentic)
2 C onion, roughly chopped
2 TBS ginger/adrak paste
2 TBS garlic/lahsun paste
1 TBS coriander/dhania, ground or sseds
2 tsp Kashmiri mirch (or 1 tsp cayenne powder + 1 tsp paprika powder)
2 tsp cumin/jeera, ground or seeds
1/2 tsp turmeric/haldi
5 green cardamoms/elaichi
3 black cardamoms/kali elaichi
1 tsp fenugreek seeds/methi
5 cloves/laung
10 black peppercorns/kali mirch
1/4 tsp mace/javitri (or nutmeg/jaiphal)
2-3 green chilis/hari mirch (omit for less heat)
2 tsp salt

Here's what to do:
1) Grind all ingredients listed under marinade to smooth paste in mixie, food processor, or blender. Coat all chicken pieces in ground marinade and place in a sealable airtight container. If you like, place the cassia leaves/tej patta and cassia bark/dalchini on top of the marinating chicken pieces in the container. Allow chicken to marinate for at least 2 hours up to overnight in the refrigerator.


2) When ready to cook place marinated chicken pieces, tej patta/cassia leaves, and cassia bark/dalchini in kadhai or deep heavy bottomed skillet. Reserve marinade. Allow chicken pieces to fry on each side for 3 minutes, chicken should just be turning white. (The chicken has been marinated in oil so there's no need to add oil to the pan.)

3) Add reserved marinade to chicken pieces in pan. Stir well and fry for 5 minutes. If mixture begins to stick or scorch add 1/4 C water, stir, and reduce heat.

4) Add 1 C water to pan, stir well and allow chicken pieces to simmer uncovered over medium heat for 20 to 25 minutes or until chicken is cooked through and oil has separated from the sauce. If mixture begins to stick or scorch add 1/4 C water, stir, and reduce heat. Salt to taste and serve.

Helpful hints:
Never cook chicken in a pressure cooker, it gets a rubbery texture from the extreme, high heat.

I think this technique of marination in oil came about in Nepal previous to modern refrigeration. Even with refrigeration nowadays electricity is so sporadic this technique is still quite useful.

Jul 25, 2016

Ingredient of the Week: Silver Leaf, Varak, Vark, Varq, Varaq, Waraq, Varakh

If you've ever wondered what exactly is that gorgeous, glittering, glamorous metallic stuff garnishing many Indian sweets, mukhwas, or meetha paan it's called vark or chaandi ki vark. Chaandi means silver and vark comes from the Sanskrit varaka meaning to cloak. Genuine silver is beaten by hand into sheets barely two tenths of a micron in thickness to make vark. Symbolizing prestige, opulence as well as medical benefits in Ayurvedic and Unani practices, vark has been in use on the Asian subcontinent for centuries. 

The method for making vark has remained unchanged for centuries and is still a traditional industry in India. Tiny squares of silver are beaten between the bound pages of a booklet-like auzar with a special hammer called a hathoda. In the old days the pages of the auzar were made from ox intestine but nowadays mylar or specially treated paper are used for vegetarian reasons. It takes about three to four hours to beat the silver to the desired thinness. Special tongs are then used to place the vark between sheets of paper to be sold.

Unfortunately there have been concerns over the safety of ingesting vark made in India. One study in Lucknow determined that about ten percent of the vark sold was actually aluminum not silver. All the tested Indian vark contained trace levels of the potentially toxic metals nickel, lead, copper, chromium, cadmium, and manganese. Ingesting bioactive silver in large amounts can be harmful too. However, vark is made of silver in it's inert not bioactive form and even if you ate an entire kilogram of sweets garnished with vark you'd ingest less than a milligram of silver.

Vark adds no discernble flavor to food and used to be available in both gold and silver. Silver vark was only purchased by people who couldn’t afford gold. Today, due to gold prices and decreased demand only silver vark is available. 

Mukhwas, the South Asian post prandial mouth freshener can also get the royal treatment with a coating of vark. Here fennel seeds, slivers of betel nut, and whole cardamoms are gilded with chaandi ki vark in this extravagant version of mukhwas to be served at a wedding, posh restaurant, or formal gathering of any kind. What method or technique is used to coat all those tiny seeds and pods with vark is beyond me.

Although served in a humble banana leaf bowl with a wooden spoon Delhi's most elegant street snack called daulat ki chaat is ornamented with a bit of vark. Daulat means wealth so this literally translates to the snack of wealth, perhaps hinting at Mughal origins? Found only in old Delhi during the winter months this divine treat is simply chilled and sweetened milk and cream beaten to an ethereal froth with cream of tartar, saffron, and a bit of rose water.

Helpful Hints:
This simple trick will determine if vark is real silver or an aluminum counterfeit: roll a bit of the vark between your fingers. Real silver vark will crumble to powder but aluminum will roll into a ball.

Jul 22, 2016

Off we go into the Wild Blue Yonder!

Alrightey then! 
We arrived in Kathmandu the day before we caught our flight to Delhi. We usually stay at the Hotel Shanker which you see in the photos below. 

Unfortunately the grand old hotel's neoclassical facade and front lobby were damaged in the 2015 earthquakes so they've spiffed up this side entrance for guests. The hotel is decorated with many gorgeous Nepali antiques that are up to 200 years old such as the hand carved doors you see in this photo.

Here's what the hotel looked like before the earthquakes in all it's glory. If you look to the far right of the building you can see the small brown door with the golden arch over it where they've temporarily moved the entry to. The hotel was originally the palace of a Nepali general built in 1894. The palace eventually came into the possession of Gen. Maharajkumar Agni Shumsher Jung Bahadur Rana, the son of HH Sri Tin Maharaja Juddha Shumsher Jung Bahadur Rana, one of the most distinguished Rana Maharajas. HM Queen Aishwarya, HM Queen Komal, and HH Princess Prekshya were born in the palace. In 1964 the palace was converted to a hotel. 

As you can see repairs are under way. Many of those those fancy neoclassical concrete gewgaws crumbled in the earthquakes. To my knowledge no one was hurt by the falling debris. If you ever get a chance to stay at the Hotel Shanker be sure to order the veg momos and their classic Shanker burger- they are fabulous! Hotel Shanker is renowned for their five star service too!

So the next day we caught our flight to Delhi from Nepal's only international airport! This is Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu. The airport has a single 10,007 feet (3,050 m) concrete runway. There is no instrument landing system available. In 2015, the airport handled 3.21 million passengers.

This is one of the many little domestic commuter planes that fly all over Nepal landing. Dorniers and Twin Otters are the preferred aircrafts of choice to navigate Nepal's difficult terrain. Nepal has many little domestic airlines, this particular plane is from Yeti Airlines. Only in Nepal can you fly on airlines with such names as Buddha Air, Cosmic Air, and Flying Dragon Airlines. That large plane with the red tail and no markings you see in the background is the abandoned Turkish Airlines Airbus that overshot the runway one foggy morning in March 2015. There's actually an airplane graveyard of sorts along that side of the runway strewn with the derelict carcasses of aircrafts which have met various mishaps over the years. 

This a photo of that March 2015 Turkish Airlines crash. As you can see one wing stuck out over the sole runway just enough to block any other planes from using it. Thankfully, no one was injured in the crash. Unfortunately no one knew quite what to do when the plane ran off the runway. As they say here in Nepal, "We start digging the well when we see the fire." The airport was closed for 4 days as various vehicles from bulldozers to cranes tried to move the damaged plane. 80,000 passengers were stranded. The Twitterati supplied constant updates on every failed effort to move the plane. No vehicle in Nepal was able to  move the plane. We all waited in eager anticipation to see whether TIA would resort to a method used in 2007 to fix a technical problem in a Nepal Airlines Boeing 757. Nepal Airline officials sacrificed two goats in front of the aircraft to appease the Hindu sky god Akash Bhairab (whose symbol is seen on the company's planes) then deemed the aircraft fit to fly.

Finally, an Indian Airforce C-130J Hercules plane brought technicians and a "removal kit" to move the plane. The plane's nose was raised on inflatable tubes, rested on a flatbed tow truck and dragged clear of the runway. Soon after this the April 2015 earthquakes hit.

Next stop is Delhi!

Jul 20, 2016

I think I'm going to Kathmandu!

So once again we went to K-K-K-Kathmandu!

Yes, we went to visit the In Laws in Kashmir for Eid! The first leg of the journey was to Kathmandu (also known as the the Big Momo) to catch a plane to Delhi. As you can see our Ms Dawg escorted our vehicle in the early morn to the end of town. And then we were off on the treacherous East-West highway once again!

Here's one of the many beautifully lush and verdant tiny river valleys we passed through. Rice paddies, corn fields, and blue skies forever during a brief parting of the Monsoon cloud cover. All this farm land has been carefully terraced to take advantage of the Monsoon rains as you can see. Remember the charred hillsides and fields I showed you earlier in April? Well, this is what comes next.

Of course all the rivers and streams are brimming and a muddy brown during the monsoon rather than their usual glacial blue gray. This bridge is like 1,000 ft high.

Unfortunately this is an all too common sight in Nepal. This is one of the many commuter busses going from the town of Pokhara to Kathmandu which has veered off the road. Traffic laws are unenforced and driving safety is unheard of in Nepal. We usually see an average of about ten to fifteen accidents whenever we go on this highway. Nepal's East-West Prithvi highway is one of the most dangerous in the world. Luckily this bus didn't crash into one of the steep ravines or off a cliff along the highway, these passengers were able to climb out of the vehicle unassisted. The recovery van (a tow truck in US English) might come along in a week or two to retrieve this bus out of the ditch. Or perhaps a farmer with a large tractor might give it a yank onto the road. Then the accident vehicle might sit for a few days in the middle of the road until it's owner comes to claim it. It is not unusual for injured passengers to stand on the edge of the road waving down passing vehicles for a ride to the hospital. Most ambulances in Nepal are 4WD but never seem to show up at accidents.

It is definitely the Monsoon. This is the highway which has turned into a river for about 150 ft. After that was a small landslide (50 ft.) we drove over. 

Who is that glamorous hijabi?
Yes, that's Bibi! This is a boredom selfie. One of the better uses for a smartphone in my opinion. After exhausting all your lives on the various Candy Crush games and playing umpteen million games of solitaire it's SELFIE TIME! No, I am not duck lipping that's what my lips look like. So after this miserable road trip we boarded a plane to Delhi only to catch another plane to Kashmir! Woo Hoo! I'm tired just thinking about it!

Jul 1, 2016


So, on my way to buy milk one recent afternoon I met these two:

Then I turned around and met these two:
All I could think of was,
“Come play with us, Bibi. Forever… and ever… and ever.”
Am I in a Stephen King novel?

Then this happened:
People always ask me if Nepal has snakes. Yes, Nepal has snakes in it's subtropical valleys and in the southernmost swampy and jungly region of the Terai. Where I'm at this is the most common snake you'll see usually hanging around rice paddies and corn fields and such. This is the Indian rat snake, oriental rat snake, Ptyas mucosa or "dhaman." They are nonvenomous and grow to be quite large feasting upon rodents in agricultural areas. This particular specimen was about five feet long but I have seen them as large as eight feet in length.

Dhamans prefer to subdue their prey by sitting on it rather than by constricting and using their body weight to weaken prey. They will hiss and make a growling sound if you pester them enough. Male dhamans are also territorial. You will sometimes see the males fighting over territory for hours by rearing up two to three feet and intertwining their bodies in a seemingly ritualized test of strength. We seem to be in this particular dhaman's territory as he usually perambulates our yard about once a month. He's not terribly afraid of the cats nor I and often slithers over my clogs when I'm out in the garden. King cobras are the adult dhamans only natural enemies. The only time I've seen cobras in Nepal was prior to 2006 when Indian "snake charmers" would bring them in baskets to amuse tourists. "Snake charming" or holding snakes captive for display and amusement has since been banned in India and Nepal. The practice was banned because the snake charmers would remove the snakes' fangs to render them harmless and then the snakes would slowly starve to death.

Ok, so snails in general aren't scary but this is quite the noxious beast. This is Achatina fulica also famously known as the giant African snail or giant African land snail. This is the very same snail they are trying to eradicate in Florida and is listed as one of the top 100 invasive species in the world. They are now found throughout India, Nepal, Taiwan, the Indian Ocean islands, the West Indies, and even Bhutan. They are HUGE, the one in the above photo is about four inches in length but they can grow to seven inches in length. I hate them. They can easily strip three to four marigold plants or a large tomato plant in my garden in a night. These snails also carry a form of meningitis that can spread to humans. Apparently they are edible if thoroughly cooked and are fried for snacks in Taiwan. You know it's really raining a lot when you see these guys climbing the garden wall as in the photo to escape drowning in the monsoonal deluge.

Spamming for kidneys!!!
In continuing with today's macabre and icky theme, for those of you who missed it there was this comment on left on my post about mangos-

Dear Sir /Madam,

Hello ,Do you want to buy or sell your kidney for money, British kidney patient association is urgently in need for O+ve and A+ve kidney donors with any passports require. If any one is willing to donate or buy please contact us through my 
email id_apollohospital222@xxxxxxx.com
Dr James
Phone Number: +918XXXXXX

That phone number is from Delhi and Apollo is an esteemed hospital chain across India. I doubt whomever posted is connected with Apollo hospitals, is "Dr James," nor has anything to do with the UK registered charity British Kidney Patient Association [BKPA]. "Organ trafficking" is a problem here in Nepal and in India. The buying and selling of organs is illegal in India and Nepal. Various ruses are involved in tricking victims into selling their organs. Nepalis are often told that their kidney will grow back or they are duped into believing they need an operation and the organ is removed without their knowledge. Since the earthquake, the number of Nepalese desperate for money turning to organ traffickers as a source of income has increased. You can read about one Nepali "kidney valley" whose near entire adult population sold their kidneys to buy homes here. There was also a scam in 2008 at a clinic in the posh Delhi suburb of Gurgaon where it is estimated 600 illegally begotten kidneys were transplanted by a Dr Amit Kumar and his brother Dr Jeevan Kumar.

“Across the room was a mirror, and deep down in its silver bubble a single word appeared in green fire and that word was: REDRUM.”
― Stephen King, The Shining

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