food talk

The Traveling Belly: A blogger's all you can eat journey across India

Kalyan Karmakar writes about how kachoris, guntur idlis and an ordinary iced-tea can transform your life.

Food blogger Kalyan Karmakar’s favourite eatery in Lucknow doesn’t serve biryani or kebabs. It isn’t even a restaurant. Traveling through the city, Karmakar happened to chance upon the Vajpayee Kachori Bhandar, a small store that sold kachoris – a deep fried Indian snack. His curiosity tickled by the long queue of customers he saw outside, Karmakar stood in line, waiting for his turn to try the perfectly flaky or khasta kachoris.

“A man from the shop called out to me and gestured that I could move up to the front,” Karmakar recalled. The man later introduced himself as Manish, inheritor of the family kachori-business, and as it turned out, a distant relative of India’s ex-prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.

One bite later, Karmakar said, he knew he was experiencing the defining culinary moment of his trip through Lucknow. The crisp kachoris were served on a plate of sal leaves, accompanied by a tangy chickpea curry,

“Everything was perfect. Right from the consistency of the crust, the seasoning and the wholesomeness.”

This meal, and meeting Vajpayee’s relative, form one of the anecdotes in Karmakar’s recently published book, The Travelling Belly, about the street food of various Indian cities and restaurants where one can sample their local cuisine.

Kachoris being fried at Vajpayee Kachori Bhandar (Image courtesy: Finelychopped.net).
Kachoris being fried at Vajpayee Kachori Bhandar (Image courtesy: Finelychopped.net).
Kachoris served with chhole at Vajpayee Kachori Bhandar (Image courtesy: Finelychopped.net).
Kachoris served with chhole at Vajpayee Kachori Bhandar (Image courtesy: Finelychopped.net).

A food blogger since 2007, Karmakar’s blog, Finely Chopped, is a delicious and detailed directory of the food stalls and eateries in every city he has travelled to. Reading the posts he has published over the years, his evolution from a mere food blogger to a food writer is evident.

The difference between the two may not seem like much anymore: Diners Instagram every plate they eat, captioning each picture with expertise borrowed from the judges on Master Chef. But with each entry, Karmakar’s descriptions on Finely Chopped reveal a nuance and refinement of palate, a willingness to engage with food not just in restaurants, but also in every day life.

“I began to write not just about the eateries I went to and the dishes I ate there, but also the people I met, the places I travelled to, the dishes I cooked,” he writes in the introduction to his book. “What started out as a place to vent became a place for me to celebrate my love for food instead.”

Image courtesy: Finelychopped.net
Image courtesy: Finelychopped.net

The Travelling Belly begins in Kolkata and ends in Mumbai, the two cities closest to the writer’s heart. The first speaks of nostalgia – sneaking a mutton roll after school at the paarar dokaan, or neighbourhood shop; splitting a single plate of mutton biryani with four or more college friends. In Mumbai, the writing is filled with food adventures experienced as an adult – dates with his then girlfriend (now wife) at the Leopold Café’ over beef chili and prawn fried rice; dunking the deep-fried savoury snack, chakli, into a bowl of schezwan sauce to munch on with drinks at Gokul bar. Karmakar’s familiarity with Mumbai is clear in the space he gives to the city in his book.

Image courtesy: Finelychopped.net
Image courtesy: Finelychopped.net

“I’m a Bengali at heart, but I think my love for Bombay is overtaking that,” said Karmakar. “Almost 25% of the book is on Mumbai. Within the city you’ll find different communities with their own set of specific food traditions co-existing and that reflects in their eating out culture. One is exposed to a variety of cuisines. I mean, it was here that I sort of realized that there is more to South Indian food than just idli and dosa.”

Some of the other cities that make it to the book include, Lucknow, Jaipur, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Delhi and Amritsar. One section devotes itself to the state of Goa. “The book is more about my personal experiences of going and eating in these places, rather than a directory of where to eat what,” said Karmakar. But The Travelling Belly is a little of both: Karmakar has the ability to summarise the distinct flavour of a city in words while providing convenient options for foodies looking to get their money’s worth. It is a handy little book to carry along when travelling through the country.

Every chapter also includes recommendations for food walk trails and tips to improve your dining experience, like: “Never drink a cola while having a mustard-based curry as it might make your tongue sore”, or “Try to enjoy a bit of the biryani by itself before adding the dahi chutney and the salan.”

Bhromon Bilashi Bhuri anyone? Dreaming of a Bengali edition of The Travelling Belly someday #TheTravellingBelly

A photo posted by Kalyan Karmakar (@thefinelychopped) on

The book is filled with anecdotes about encounters with the locals, servers, cooks and proprietors of establishments, regardless of whether they are well-known or hidden gems that Karmakar stumbled upon on one of his many excavations for life-altering street food.

One such example is Dolly’s tea shop, a favourite with Karmakar’s wife and unlike any of the usual tea stalls which dot Kolkata’s streets.

“Dolly Roy began her tea shop in 1988 as a tribute to her love for tea,” Karmakar said. “She is India’s first female tea taster and the world’s first female tea auctioneer.”

Roy’s first words to Karmakar’s wife, (“What will you have, my dear?”, delivered in a kind and husky voice) were the beginning of a beautiful friendship between the two. Roy suggested some lovely iced teas, since the Karmakars weren’t fond of hot tea. In the conversation that followed, the Karmakars told Roy about their lives in Mumbai. By the time they left the establishment, they were converts to tea – or at least, to Dolly Roy’s teas.

“Since then we have returned to Dolly’s every time we go to Kolkata.”

Inside Dolly's tea shop (Image courtesy: Finelychopped.net).
Inside Dolly's tea shop (Image courtesy: Finelychopped.net).

In Hyderabad, guntur idlis, steamed rice cakes covered in a fiery spice mix, were a “food epiphany” for the writer. In the book he mentions that it was in Hyderabad that he finally lost his idli ennui.

“Growing up, the idlis we ate in Kolkata or the ones eaten at Udupi restaurants in Mumbai, were these tasteless, hard, rubbery discs over which we always preferred the more satisfying dosa,” he said. “Guntur idlis were a revelation in how an idli can be a meal in itself. It elevated the status of idli for me.”

After the numerous soul and belly satisfying encounters, it is difficult for Karmakar to pick a favourite dish. “They change with every city,” he said. “In Amritsar it would probably be the kada prasad or wheat halwa served at 4 am, to devotees at the Golden Temple. In Jaipur, it’s Junglee maas or wild meat. In New Delhi, the ghughni, a spicy lentil stew with mutton served at Chittaranjan Park, and the list for Mumbai would be even longer,” said Karmakar.

Guntur idlis (Image courtesy: Finelychopped.net).
Guntur idlis (Image courtesy: Finelychopped.net).

While writing the book, Karmakar had one simple rule when it came down to whether a dish should be included or not:

“If I don’t remember a dish then it is not worth mentioning in the book,” said Karmakar. “I have a pretty sharp memory when it comes to food, so I didn’t revisit the eateries and stalls, but I did constantly return to my blog.”

Laal maas, a signature spicy meat dish from Rajasthan (Image courtesy: Finelychopped.net).
Laal maas, a signature spicy meat dish from Rajasthan (Image courtesy: Finelychopped.net).

These days, the writer is taking a break from dining outside. “I’m increasingly finding myself enjoying home-cooked food,” he said. On the day he spoke to Scroll.in, the writer had just finished a lunch of home-made Bengali style khichuri, a lentil and rice dish.

“Growing up I didn’t appreciate Bengali home food the way I do now. My comfort food evolves with me. As a kid it was all about Chinese food, noodles and pasta. As I grow older, I’m beginning to appreciate Bengali dishes like aloo posto or potatoes cooked with poppy seeds, a basic khichuri, or even just the way we cook cabbage,” he said.

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Some of the worst decisions made in history

From the boardroom to the battlefield, bad decisions have been a recipe for disaster

On New Year’s Day, 1962, Dick Rowe, the official talent scout for Decca Records, went to office, little realising that this was to become one of the most notorious days in music history. He and producer Mike Smith had to audition bands and decide if any were good enough to be signed on to the record label. At 11:00 am, either Rowe or Smith, history is not sure who, listened a group of 4 boys who had driven for over 10 hours through a snowstorm from Liverpool, play 15 songs. After a long day spent listening to other bands, the Rowe-Smith duo signed on a local group that would be more cost effective. The band they rejected went on to become one of the greatest acts in musical history – The Beatles. However, in 1962, they were allegedly dismissed with the statement “Guitar groups are on the way out”.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Decca’s decision is a classic example of deciding based on biases and poor information. History is full of examples of poor decisions that have had far reaching and often disastrous consequences.

In the world of business, where decisions are usually made after much analysis, bad decisions have wiped out successful giants. Take the example of Kodak – a company that made a devastating wrong decision despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Everyone knows that Kodak couldn’t survive as digital photography replaced film. What is so ironic that Alanis Morissette could have sung about it, is that the digital camera was first invented by an engineer at Kodak as early as 1975. In 1981, an extensive study commissioned by Kodak showed that digital was likely to replace Kodak’s film camera business in about 10 years. Astonishingly, Kodak did not use this time to capitalise on their invention of digital cameras – rather they focused on making their film cameras even better. In 1996, they released a combined camera – the Advantix, which let users preview their shots digitally to decide which ones to print. Quite understandably, no one wanted to spend on printing when they could view, store and share photos digitally. The Advantix failed, but the company’s unwillingness to shift focus to digital technology continued. Kodak went from a 90% market share in US camera sales in 1976 to less than 10% in 2012, when it filed for bankruptcy. It sold off many of its biggest businesses and patents and is now a shell of its former self.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Few military blunders are as monumental as Napoleon’s decision to invade Russia. The military genius had conquered most of modern day Europe. However, Britain remained out of his grasp and so, he imposed a trade blockade against the island nation. But the Russia’s Czar Alexander I refused to comply due to its effect on Russian trade. To teach the Russians a lesson, Napolean assembled his Grand Armée – one of the largest forces to ever march on war. Estimates put it between 450,000 to 680,000 soldiers. Napoleon had been so successful because his army could live off the land i.e. forage and scavenge extensively to survive. This was successful in agriculture-rich and densely populated central Europe. The vast, barren lands of Russia were a different story altogether. The Russian army kept retreating further and further inland burning crops, cities and other resources in their wake to keep these from falling into French hands. A game of cat and mouse ensued with the French losing soldiers to disease, starvation and exhaustion. The first standoff between armies was the bloody Battle of Borodino which resulted in almost 70,000 casualties. Seven days later Napoleon marched into a Moscow that was a mere shell, burned and stripped of any supplies. No Russian delegation came to formally surrender. Faced with no provisions, diminished troops and a Russian force that refused to play by the rules, Napolean began the long retreat, back to France. His miseries hadn’t ended - his troops were attacked by fresh Russian forces and had to deal with the onset of an early winter. According to some, only 22,000 French troops made it back to France after the disastrous campaign.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

When it comes to sports, few long time Indian cricket fans can remember the AustralAsia Cup final of 1986 without wincing. The stakes were extremely high – Pakistan had never won a major cricket tournament, the atmosphere at the Sharjah stadium was electric, the India-Pakistan rivalry at its height. Pakistan had one wicket in hand, with four runs required off one ball. And then the unthinkable happened – Chetan Sharma decided to bowl a Yorker. This is an extremely difficult ball to bowl, many of the best bowlers shy away from it especially in high pressure situations. A badly timed Yorker can morph into a full toss ball that can be easily played by the batsman. For Sharma who was then just 18 years old, this was an ambitious plan that went wrong. The ball emerged as a low full toss which Miandad smashed for a six, taking Pakistan to victory. Almost 30 years later, this ball is still the first thing Chetan Sharma is asked about when anyone meets him.

So, what leads to bad decisions? While these examples show the role of personal biases, inertia, imperfect information and overconfidence, bad advice can also lead to bad decisions. One of the worst things you can do when making an important decision is to make it on instinct or merely on someone’s suggestion, without arming yourself with the right information. That’s why Aegon Life puts the power in your hands, so you have all you need when choosing something as important as life insurance. The Aegon Life portal has enough information to help someone unfamiliar with insurance become an expert. So empower yourself with information today and avoid decisions based on bad advice. For more information on the iDecide campaign, see here.

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This article was produced on behalf of Aegon Life by the Scroll.in marketing team and not by the Scroll.in editorial staff.