Saturday, July 13, 2019

Gooey chocolate oats for breakfast

It's been an eventful few months but I'll get to that later. For now, here's a rich, chocolate oatmeal recipe for all cocoa lovers out there! 

Gooey chocolate oats with toppings

This recipe makes enough for one person. And, these are my standard measurements because Len prefers plain oats. Umm. Yes. He is weird that way!

What you need

1 cup milk
1 tsp cocoa powder, heaped
1/2 cup rolled oats, or plain instant oats
2 dates, pitted and chopped
1 tsp honey
1 pinch of salt

Choice of toppings:
For this variant I used chewy apricots, raisins, and cranberries, along with pumpkin seeds for some crunch. 

You can use any nut of your choice - almonds and walnuts are great. Along with fresh fruit. Mangoes and berries work very well with chocolate. 

How to

Heat milk and dates in a pan. 

Add cocoa powder and stir until well incorporated. Add the oats. Rolled oats take about 10-12 mins of cooking. Instant is done in just five. Sometimes I add some extra milk if it begins to look too dry. Remember it will thicken as it cools. 

Add the salt and stir. Like all chocolate desserts, salt does something magical to elevate the taste.

I like it slightly cooled or even refrigerated. Add toppings and honey. And if you really want to indulge, add a dollop of peanut butter. You will remember to thank me. I know! 😍

Enjoy your bowl of goodness.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Cold salad on a hot hot day

I have been meaning to post a couple of recipes lately, and trust me when I say this, I have struck gold - in the quick meal category - numerous times these past few weeks! But each time I thought of cleaning up the sketchy notes I had saved in my drafts, I would instead plug in my earphones to partake in my newest hobby. Audiobooks on Audibles. I finished 'listening' to my first audiobook on this fantastic platform, and boy, am I hooked! My cab rides are suddenly quite entertaining, and I no longer feel the need to hold a book up straight when I am reading late at night. Of course, it still begs the question, are audiobooks the same as reading a book? Perhaps not. But, on the whole, I would rate it as quite an enriching experience, especially when an able 'reader' lends his/her voice to the characters of your book.   

So, instead of my regular food talk, I thought I'd do something a little different today. Write about a book instead (followed by the customary recipe, of course). If you hate it, forgive me, I am completely out of touch - the last time I wrote about a book was during my time at the university, and it has been many years since!

So, here goes.

Dear Life by Alice Munro

This is my first Munro title, all thanks to an aunt who recommended her. Usually, when testing waters with a new author, I prefer to opt for an earlier work by the writer. It usually makes for a smoother introduction somehow. I have done this successfully many a times before; for example, two of my most favourite books of all time, are the earlier works of Milan Kundera and Herman Hesse. With Munro, I am not sure why I selected this title - her latest collection of short stories published in 2012. Perhaps, the title itself drew me to it. But, whatever it is, I don't think I could have asked for a better introduction to Munro's work.  

Dear Life is a compilation 14 short stories, with the last four being somewhat of an autobiographical nature by the author's own admission. Poignant yet truthful, they are simple, almost colloquially written. It is as if you were siting right next to Munro herself, on a cold winter evening, a mug of cocoa in your hands, listening to a retelling of an incident from her childhood, or perhaps an acquaintance, or neighbour. If I had to fit this book into one single genre, I would say it represents what is essentially a slice of life story. An event, a lover, a parent, or perhaps just a memory cut out from the lives of her characters. There is nothing grand about these stories, rather what makes them stand out is Munro's extraordinary treatment of her characters. And, in doing so, they come alive as vibrantly as her robust imagery of a Canada, 30, 50, or 70 years back. 

Would I recommend this book? Absolutely. If I had to read this once again, I would want to do this, curled up the top bunk of a long-distance train. It is one those books. Short. Sweet. Memorable. 

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Bengali fish curry for nobo borsho

I just realized I haven't done a nobo borsho special post, and we are already 10 days past the bengali new year - celebrated on 15 April. Saturday was well-spent, and I managed to get some cooking done, as well as tick off a bunch of things from my to-do list. Summers have set in, a big project at work has just ended, travel plans are on the card, and DIY ideas are soon to be executed! It is going to be a great year! 

I have not shared a fish curry recipe in a while, so thought this is a good opportunity to set the record straight. This post, however, is not so much about a very traditional recipe, rather an excuse to wish everyone out there Shubho Nobo Borsho, or happy new year! 
This fish curry made with a poppy seed paste, or posto, is not something my grandmother would have made, rather something you might find at a restaurant in Delhi serving Bengali food. It is easy to make, and requires minimum ingredients.

For this recipe I am using pangaash,a type of medium-sized catfish, with a mild fatty flavour. It is a very soft fish, and tends to absorb the flavours of the curry very well. It is also very inexpensive, making it a perfect choice if you are cooking on a budget. I think I tasted this for the first time in Bangladesh in 2012, and it has become a favourite ever since. It is also called Shillong in Delhi (nothing to do with the place though!), and is quite similar in flavour to its more expensive cousin, the long-whiskered catfish (Sperata aor), or as we call it in bengali, aarh.

Restaurant-style posto fish curry

What you need

500 gm fish
1 small onion, chopped
3-4 garlic cloves, chopped
1 tomato, chopped
4 tbsp poppy seed paste*
3-4 green chillies
1/2 tsp panch phoron**
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
Salt to taste
1/4 tsp sugar
Water, as required

How to

Marinate the fish with some salt and half of the turmeric powder for 15 minutes. Shallow fry or bake in an oven, and keep aside.

In a pan, heat mustard oil until its smoking point. Turn down heat, and then add the panch phoron to the oil. Once they begin to sputter, add the chopped onion and garlic. Add the remaining turmeric powder and some salt. Fry until golden brown. 

Add the chopped tomatoes, and cook this until the tomatoes are all mushy, and the oil starts to separate. If it gets too dry, you can always add a teaspoon of water to thin it out. This should take about 10-15 minutes. 

Add the poppy seed paste, and fry for another 10 minutes.

Add water, and turn up the heat. When the gravy begins to thicken, add the fish and let it cook for a couple of minutes. Taste for salt, and adjust if needed. Mix the sugar.

Turn of the heat, and keep the fish curry covered for at least half hour before serving. Enjoy with hot, white rice.

*Grind the poppy seeds with some water to make a fine paste. I find that the best way to do this is either using a dry grinder, and then mixing the poppy seed powder with water to make the paste. Alternately, first add the dry seeds to a grinder, and then add water. If using this method, I like to grind the seeds for a minute or two, and then let them sit for 15 mins in the grinder. This ensures a better uniform paste.

**Panch phoron is a mix of five whole spices. Use equal portions of nigella, black mustard, fenugreek, fennel, and cumin seeds. 

Saturday, March 30, 2019

DIY for a hot Delhi summer: Make some raisins at home

The white, hot season is upon us. Well, almost anyway. The flowers of spring have started to wilt, and the landscape will soon take on that dull, brown hue. Somehow, nothing, nothing ever prepares you to deal with the heat of a Delhi summer. I often find myself amazed at how the weather oscillates as it does here. From the biting cold of early January to the blazing heat of June. There are some perks, of course - of summers, I mean. It brings with it some of my favourite fruit of all time - mangoes, watermelon, lychee! :D

While we look forward to whipping up some delicious smoothies, we have also been thinking of ways to make use of the summer sun. And, then, dad came up with a brilliant idea. Raisins!! 

Raisins to serve!

When the price of grapes had gone down last month, we bought bags and bags of that stuff. Dad suggested we sun-dry some, to make raisins. I was quite cynical, of course, about the whole thing. Would it work? Anyhow, they were washed and cleaned, and we spread them out on plates covered with a thin muslin cloth, and put them out to dry. Two weeks later, I was amazed to find that it worked! Now, we have our own homemade, sugar-free, delicious black raisins! And, guess what, I just bottled the first jar. 

Store in an airtight glass container

These raisins are dark, and wrinkly, slightly chewy and sweet, with just a hint of tang. Delicious to snack on as is, or in oats or with pancakes or anything else!  As the sun gets stronger, dehydrating fruit will be a piece of cake. The plan is to make more raisins - the green ones are out in sun presently, followed by sun-dried tomatoes (in olive oil). 

How to

Wash and clean grapes of your choice. You can do this with any kind - black, green, seedless or any other variety. Just remember if you dry a full plate of grapes, you will probably end up with one small jar because the grapes will shrink as they dry out.

Spread out in a single layer on a plate.

Cover with a clean cloth or a net mesh, and keep out in the sun.

Green grapes being dried 

Remember to bring them in at night (or, if it rains!)

Be patient. Soon, you will have a pantry filled with jars of delicious dehydrated fruit, ready to top over desserts, or eat as is :)

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Breakfast for a Monday morning

Lately, I have been waking up a lot to dawn chorus. It is a wonderful feeling, and I can even tell you the order in which the birds start chirping in the morning. At the break of dawn, it's usually the crows - they are the first ones to rise I think, and then the melodious songs start. So, by the time my alarm goes off I am usually half awake thanks to bird songs. It's a different matter of course that I often spend an hour lazing in bed even after the second alarm goes off, before I jump out in an attempt to make it out of the house on time.

So, today I thought I'd talk a bit about breakfast. This is because as far as meals go, I think I do my best in the morning. My breakfast needs to be perfect. I can go buy a plate of rajma chawal for Rs.20 from one of those jan aahaar kiosks if need be, but if I need to compromise on breakfast, it's not a happy day. I had shared some of my favourite oatmeal recipes in the past, so I thought of doing a savoury breakfast post today. This is one of my current favourites - essentially a sandwich filling, but would be great as a filling in anything else too: pies, wraps, or whatever. What I love about this recipe is that I can easily make it ahead of time and store it in the fridge, ready to be slathered on to a piece of toast any time I want.

I call this my Red-Green-White filling because it has all these colours in equal measure: red from the tomato, green from the pesto, and white from the mushroom and cream cheese! This recipe makes enough filling for one sandwich - just enough to keep hunger pangs at bay before I break for lunch. However, it can just as easily be doubled (or tripled, or more...). This is a great choice for a picnic lunch or an evening snack as well. I like to make this at least once a week, when I am in the mood for some extra indulgence - especially on a mean Monday morning! 

Loaded with goodness

What you need

3 large button mushrooms, or other mushroom of choice, cut into thick slices
Quarter of a large tomato, chopped into small pieces
1/2 tsp pesto
1 tsp cream cheese
2-3 drops of olive oil
A pinch of salt
A few pieces of black olives (optional)
2 slices of bread, toasted*

*I love garlic bread with this filling, but any kind of bread works. If you like you can always add a pinch of garlic powder to the filling for that extra garlicky kick in your sandwich.

How to

Smear a few drops of olive oil on your pan, and add mushrooms. Sprinkle salt, and allow the mushrooms to sweat. The water from the mushrooms will stop them from burning. When they start to get a bit toasty, add the pesto and mix.

Add chopped tomatoes. Give it a good stir. After a minute, add the cream cheese and mix everything together. Turn of heat. Allow the sandwich filling to cool slightly before spreading on a piece of warm toast. Top with the sliced olives.

Enjoy immediately. If packing for later, you can spread this on fresh bread, and toast or grill the sandwich just before having.

Crusty bread with a warm filling

Monday, March 4, 2019

Lemon butter cookies for the happy soul

There is something magical about lemon and butter, wouldn't you agree? And when you bring them together, be assured good things will happen. We have been having a spate of gloomy weather here in Delhi. Spring took a roundabout, and it feels like we are heading back to winterland. Personally, I love this sort of weather. Overcast skies make me happy, and also set the stage for the best baking experiences ever! It's like having a radiator (read oven) with a delicious smell! Who can resist that?!

These are butter cookies with a wonderful lemony flavour. I could easily polish off a box of the plain butter ones, but the lemon ones are divine. The lemon zest lightens and brightens the rich sweet taste of the butter cookies. And trust me when I say this. You MUST try these at home. If you like baking, make these soon. If you don't, learn to bake and make these anyway!

Cookie time 

These lemon butter cookies require just FOUR ingredients that you probably have at home anyway. I made these for the first time long long long time ago. Probably one of the first few things I ever baked. 

This recipe makes roughly 20-25 cookies, not a large number at all, if you consider how fast these will disappear into the dark depths of your tummy (big goofy grin)! Double if you want more. The dough can be made ahead of time and kept in the fridge for a couple of days wrapped in cling film.

Enjoy with a cup of milk tea or coffee, or as a snack to kill those mid-day hunger pangs. 

What you need

125gm butter, at room temperature 
1/2 cup icing sugar 
1 cup flour
Zest of 2 lemons

How to

Ideally you will need an electric mixer for this recipe but if you don't have one, it's still doable. It will take a wee bit longer though, and a bit of arm-work but, hey, it's totally worth it! 

Start with the butter at room temperature. If it's too warm or too cold where you stay, you can do what I do. Microwave and refrigerate until the butter is nice and soft, but not entirely melted.

Use the electric mixer to cream the butter with the lemon zest. Do this until pale and fluffy.

Once this is achieved, add the icing sugar. Mush it around with a spatula before you turn on the mixer again - you don't want icing sugar flying all over your kitchen! Continue beating the butter and sugar, until you have the consistency of a rich buttercream. 

Stir in the flour and combine well with the buttercream. You will have a very soft dough at this point. Chill in the fridge for 30 minutes. 

Take equal sized balls (roughly a teaspoon) of the dough and press down gently with the back of a fork for a criss cross pattern. Line them on a baking sheet with some space in between. They spread a little as they cook. 

These look tiny but as they cook
they will spread and rise

Bake them in a preheated oven for 15 minutes, or until they are a slight golden colour. Remember that they will harden as they cool, so don't worry if they seem slight springy when you take them out of the oven.

Cool completely. These are best after a couple of hours of cooling. Store upto two weeks in an airtight container. 

I love the criss-cross
pattern on these cookies

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Mirza Ghalib's haveli and sheermal from Old Delhi

As a child I was a fairly frequent visitor to Ballimaran, all thanks to my father's college friend who lived there. This is long before Delhi Metro made it easy to commute across the city, and food walks in Old Delhi were less heard of. Anyhow, there came a time when I could proudly navigate my way through the labyrinth that is Ballimaran - all the way from Hauz Qazi Chowk where we would park our car, right up the narrow, steep stairway to his house. Why did I visit? Well, the food, of course. The best biryani and the best korma I have ever tasted, was in that household. But my most favourite thing to eat was sheermal, and I have never found one anywhere else that was just as good. 

Over the years, our trips became less frequent, and when uncle moved houses, our visits to Ballimaran stopped entirely. And then last weekend, all thanks to a slight case of FOMO, Len and I made our way to the old city to check out Mirza Ghalib's haveli in the heart of Ballimaran. This is the house where Ghalib spent the last phase of his life from 1860 to 1869. In retrospect I must have passed by that crumbling building many times in my childhood, but there was no museum back then. A small part of the house was converted to a museum in the year 2000, and has been open to the public ever since. 

The museum itself isn't much to write about - two rooms containing a stone bust of the poet, three dusty hand-written manuscripts, and a glass case with some clothes belonging to the great man. The rest of the haveli seems to have been usurped by settlers over the last few decades. 

Inside Mirza Ghalib's museum in Delhi
Relics of the past

Getting there

The closest metro station is Chawri Bazaar, and getting to the haveli is a piece of cake if you can brave the maddening crowd of people, rickshaws, two-wheelers, carts, and what-not! Google Maps showed us a mere 900m from the Hauz Qazi exit to the museum, but the walk seemed very, very long! 

Ballimaran streets

Between checking Google Map on my phone and ensuring I did not get run over by a cycle rickshaw, there was little time to admire the place. But even then the museum was only a part of the bigger picture. The crumbling buildings, the chaos of Lal Kuan bazaar, and the nostalgia of revisiting a place I frequented in my childhood, all added to the charm.

The Hamdard main office is one of the landmarks of the area

Finding food and reliving memories

On the way back, we snuck into a tiny hole-in-the-wall kind of a shop to pick up sheermal and tandoori roti. These were priced at Rs.25 an Rs.6 each. The latter we consumed on our way back to the metro station - a bit like a Parisian would have his baguette while heading to the subway :) This made for a delicious lunch. 

The fluffy white tandoori rotis are salted, and will melt in your mouth, while the the rich, sweet flavour of the sheermal is absolutely decadent. We had the sheermal for dinner, warmed for 30 seconds in the microwave until they were tender and fragrant. I did miss the korma though - the perfect accompaniment with these flatbreads - but I have saved that for another day. And another adventure.

They say sheermal somewhat resembles a Danish pastry! 

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Third time's a charm: Lal maas for dinner

I had a rather annoying start to the day yesterday. Food-wise that is. It started with a failed attempt at making Vietnamese egg coffee at breakfast, followed by a messed up dalia khichri episode during lunch all thanks to a leaky pressure cooker gasket. I was getting a bit jittery by this time. My cousin was coming home for dinner. What if it was one of those days when everything went wrong?! And, I am one of those people, who would kill myself in the kitchen slaving over a complex recipe just to see that OMG WOW expression on the faces of my guests! Ummm, yes, I can be that lame. 

But, it seemed pretty pointless to cry to cry over spilled milk - figuratively speaking, of course (I did not spill milk yesterday!), and so I did what I have done since childhood - when faced with tough decisions and hardships, hit the bed! There's nothing like a satisfying nap to get a fresh start on a problem situation. When I woke up, I knew exactly what I needed to do. I chucked the fancy-smancy 3-course meal ideas I had planned upon, and decided to stick with what I understand best. Curry, of course.

The last time I had made lal maas, I had tried a healthy rendition of the recipe, and realized some recipes you DON'T mess with! You cannot cook a bland, oil-free lal maas!! This was soon after my trip to Jodhpur, where I had tried the dish for the first time. Smack in the middle of the gorgeous Mehrangarh Fort, my meal at Chokelao Mehal restaurant was unforgettable. And, just like that overcast afternoon, I wanted a fiery red curry and no more culinary faux pad for the day. And for me, third time was a charm. Things went as per plan. The lal maas was finger-licking good! Rich, flavourful, and robust. The sweetness from the ghee along with the fiery dried chilly is to die for. Really! It's just that good! Best enjoyed with a plate of steaming hot rice, or freshly made tawa rotis. 

Lal maas

What you need

1 kg mutton, get your choice of cut, but boned is preferable 
3 onions, medium sized, finely chopped 
8-10 cloves of garlic, finely minced
Quarter cup, ghee, or clarified butter
200 gm thick curd
8-10 dried red chilly (or as per taste)
2-3 tsp red chilly powder
1 tbsp turmeric powder
1 tbsp coriander powder 
1 tsp cumin powder
3 black cardamom 
4 green cardamom 
1/4 tsp cinnamon powder, or a small 1/2 stick 
Coriander leaves, finely chopped to garnish 

Equipment: Use a pot with a tight lid for this recipe. 

How to

Before you start, soak the dry red chilies in a bit of water and allow them to soften. Also mix the dry spices with the curd and keep aside.

Heat ghee in a pot and add whole spices. When they start getting fragrant add the chopped garlic. After a minute or so, add the chopped onion and a bit of salt as you fry it. This will help the onion to soften faster. Fry until they turn to a golden brown colour (and your kitchen starts smelling incredible!)

Add the mutton and fry for a few minutes until you see some colour on the meat.

Add the spiced curd and mix well with the mutton. You might want to turn off the flame as you do it because adding curd to a hot pot can lead to curdling.

Cook this on low to medium heat until all the moisture from the curd has evaporated. The oil will float to the top and edge of the pot at this point. This process should takes around 15 minutes or so. 

Then add warm water and cover the pot tightly with a lid. Allow to simmer for 20 minutes. Taste for seasoning and adjust if needed. 

When the oil separates and the gravy is thick, turn off the heat.

Add chopped coriander leaves to garnish. 

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Cinnamon ginger marmalade cake

This beautiful morning deserves some extra loving. And, so here is a orange spice cake that is best enjoyed with a steaming cup of chai.

Cinnamon-ginger-marmalade cake

What you need 

225gm flour
175gm caster sugar 
175 butter, at room temperature 
3 eggs
2.5tsp baking powder
1.5tsp cinnamon powder
1tsp ginger powder
1/5tsp allspice powder
1 tbsp cinnamon sugar 
1tsp salt
150gm good quality marmalade, plus extra for brushing

1 8-inch cake tin

Electric whisk or wooden spoon

Aluminium foil

How to

First things first, grease an 8-inch cake tin with butter or oil. Preheat your oven to 180 degrees. 

Let's start with the dry ingredients. Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt along with the three spice powders - cinnamon, ginger, and allspice. Keep aside.

Now for the wet ingredients. Cream together the butter and sugar until fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time (to avoid splashing raw eggs all over!). Lastly add the marmalade and give it one quick mix with the beater. I used a hand-held electric mixer but a whisk should be fine too.

Add the flour mix into the wet dough and fold gently. Do not beat it at this stage. Fold until the dry and wet bits are mixed. Do not over mix. 

This is a thick cake dough so you might need a spatula or spoon to transfer the cake dough into your tin. Once you do this, level it as best as possible using a spatula or the back of your spoon. 

Spread it out as evenly as
possible and try and fill in
the edges as well. But don't
sweat it, it will all work
out in the end.

This cake takes an hour to bake. And I find that it bakes well if you cover the sides of your cake tin with aluminium foil.

After about 30 minutes, or when the top of the cake begins to turn brown, loosely cover the tin with foil. This will prevent your cake crust from burning. But remember to do this quickly without taking the tin out of the oven. I simply slide a slightly crushed piece of foil over my cake tin so it can prevent direct heat from the heating rods on top.

If you use a large oven this might not be such a problem but if you use a 28-litre OTG like I do, you might have to keep checking on your cake. 

After an hour, take the cake out and insert a skewer or toothpick to check for doneness. If it comes out clean it's done. You could also gently press the cake at the centre. It should feel firm and usually by this time the edges of the cake pull away from the cake tin. 

Let the cake cool

Sprinkle the top of the cake with cinnamon sugar. Let it rest for 10 minutes before turning it over. Sprinkle more cinnamon sugar on the other side and finish it off by spreading a generous layer of warm marmalade on top. 

Spread some good quality
marmalade on top of the cake.
Do this when the cake is
still warm

Cut into wedges and warm them in a microwave before serving. You are now ready to savour the fruits of your labour with a steaming cup of milk tea on a cold winter morning.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Cruising along Bai Tu Long Bay

So, what is it like to cruise along the stunning limestone isles of the Halong and Bai Tu Long region? 

When I decided that I wanted to visit Vietnam, I always knew that this is something I most certainly wanted to experience. I am not a cruise junkie. In fact this was my very first overnight experience off shore. The only other "big boat" I can recall, is the hour (or was it two?) long journey I had taken on those gigantic steamers that ferry humans, cattle, along with massive buses, trucks, and all, across the vast Padma river in Bangladesh. But, that was an entirely different sight - a story for another day! 

My travel mantra is simple. Since I cannot possible garner every travel experience the world has to offer, I would like my very limited ones to be as diverse and as distinct as possible. And, that is how the cruise happened. 

Eerie, mysterious, gorgeous...

If only I could put in words the sense of peace that washed over me, as I lay on the sun deck under the bluest of skies, sun on my face, with the gentle whirring sound of the boat... but I cannot. All I can say is that it was beautiful, and calm, and serene. The sunrise (and sunset) was spectacular, and I will proudly proclaim that I managed the monumental task of waking up at 05:30 to watch the sun rise! 

Panorama shot of sunrise

There isn't much to do on a cruise, really. I am extremely averse to group activities that many tours entail. Luckily for me, this one didn't have any of that - except meal timings, kayaking hour, and the visit to the cave. Most of my time I could be one my own, sitting at the restaurant on the deck, or lounging on one of those super comfortable sunbeds, soaking in as much peace and quiet as I possibly could. Funnily, I was the only solo traveller on a cruise that had three honeymooning couples, and five more couples/ families. Ah, well. I loved my me-time. 

Sun deck: See that man with his feet
up in the air. He was snoring!

My only regret was that I couldn't spend enough time in my cabin - if you can call it that. The gorgeous room was larger than many hotel rooms I  have stayed in, and the bed - oh the bed! You just sink into it, and want to stay there forever!

I wouldn't call this a cabin! There was a jaccuzi
in the bathroom!
But then again, the outdoors was gorgeous. I was lucky to be there on a day when the weather was just perfect. Not a drop of rain, clear skies, and calm waters. My kayak behaved very well all through, and I had no trouble leaving the oars occasionally to click a few pictures!

My kayaking buddies

Limestone caves with stalactites and stalagmites

I took this photo (see below) from a clearing near the entrance of a cave we visited. The cave was kind of dark, as would be expected, but you could admire the stalactite and stalagmite formations inside. For a split of a second, I was transported to my incredibly tiresome geography class in school. Why could they not arrange study trips to real caves to study that stuff? I would have learnt a great deal without doubt!

See the two peaks? Well, guess what the term
for these two, umm, peaks, mean in the local
language. Boobs! So, explained our cruise guide.

The verdict

In all, an experience worth every penny, and a fitting end to my overseas trip. But, would I cruise again? Probably not, at least any time soon. My thirst for luxurious cruises has been quenched for now. I wouldn't mind sailing on rough seas next time, or maybe an expedition to Antarctica or a cruise along the Caribbean islands, perhaps?

INFORMATION BYTE Where to go: Halong or Bai Tu Long

Most 2-day 1-night cruises take you to one of these two areas (Halong or Bai Tu Long). I was distraught over this decision -  which one to opt for? But I realize now this need not be very difficult. Option 1 is visiting the UNESCO heritage site with a more spectacular landscape but accepting the fact that there would be tons of other cruises alongside you. This is Halong. This part of the bay is generally much more crowded and you must be prepared to have all your photos dotted with other cruise ships. The other option, is visiting the Bai Tu Long route, and this is the one that I chose. The limestone isles here are slightly smaller in size, and in fact the term Bai Tu Long literally means "baby dragons descending", while Halong refers to the mama dragon! However, the thing that sets apart Bai Tu Long is the fact that it is still somewhat untouched, more pristine, with very few cruise ships sailing along this route. Ultimately, it boils down to personal choices, but for me, I know I made the right decision.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Charmed by Hanoi: A two-day itinerary

The red bridge on Hoan Kiem lake at twilight

It's been two weeks since I returned from Vietnam, and I think it would be a good idea to create a post for anyone who wants to visit Hanoi, or cruise along Halong Bay. Also the fact that I managed to catch a terrible cold, is plenty reason to do this. If I need to stay in bed all day, what's better than to put a new post out there? 

I was in Vietnam for five nights (including my arrival in the country late at night), but in this post I will put forth a comfortable 2D-2N itinerary only for Hanoi. A 1N-2D Halong cruise actually takes up almost two days, and I will write about this in my next post. 

I didn't book any guided tours at all in the city, but for anyone who prefers tours, I will suggest two great options at the end of my post. 


I stayed in the Old Quarter at a lovely hotel called the Hanoi Golden Moon Hotel. This is a budget/mid-range option in a location that is perfect if you want to do most of your sight-seeing on foot. Having said that, there is no dearth of good hotels in Hanoi, so if you want to splurge on a more luxurious experience or go budget in a hostel, do by all means. You won't be disappointed! However, I would strongly recommend staying at the city-centre because this is where all the action is, so the Old Quarter, or a hotel facing the Hoan Kiem lake would be best. And, if your pockets are very deep, you may consider the iconic Sofitel Metropole Legend Hanoi in the French Quarter. I did go to see the building, but then that's as far as I could go with my budget! :)

Day 1. Let's get started! 

I started early in morning, and after a hearty breakfast of fruit, pho, coffee, and an assortment of other delicious tapas-like-items, I stepped out to greet Hanoi. The first whiff of a new place is exhilarating, and I turned to my Google maps and headed towards the Hoan Kiem lake. 

Some cities have a certain charm about them. 
Hanoi is one such place.

The weather was perfect, not too cold but there was a nip in the air, the sky clear and bright. I could almost see the red bridge in my mind's eye, and after a seven-minute walk through the Old Quarter labyrinth, there she was.

Tourists and locals alike flock this part of the city 

The Hoan Kiem lake is literally heart and soul of this beautiful city, and rightfully so. 


I must have spent more than a few hours strolling around the lake, occasionally getting a bite to eat (and trust me, you will be spoilt for choice!). 

Tree-lined pavements and benches
are everywhere

In Hanoi, you are never too far
from a souvenir shop

The bridge across the lake takes you to the Ngoc Son temple. (The entry for foreigners is 30,000 dongs.) 

At the temple site

At the end of the bridge, you will enter an enclosed space that houses a specimen of a beautiful giant turtle that died in 1967. At the time of death, he was believed to be 900 years old! History buffs, you can find read about his death here

This turtle is said to have weighed 250 kg

Turtles are generally revered in this part of the world, and have been since the 15th century when Emperor Ly Thai defeated an invading Chinese king using a magical sword that was bestowed upon him by the Gods. Legend has it that the day after his victory, the emperor came upon a giant golden turtle swimming on the surface of the lake in Hanoi. The creature snatched the sword from the king and supposedly restored it to its divine owners. Ever since the Hoan Kiem lake has been known as the "Lake of the Restored Sword". Many believe that catching these giant creatures will bring good fortune, while others believe that the original turtle still lives on in the the deep waters of the lake. 

If you come to Hoan Kiem in the morning you will find runners, joggers, and amblers but as night falls it turns into a place of fun and games. There are street performers, both locals and expats, lots of light everywhere, music and dance, and lovely people everywhere you look. A walk around this lake will also take you to the Water Puppet Theatre. Water puppetry is an age-old cultural art form that is being revived in Vietnam today. 

A marathon was being run the day I visited the lake

Kids enjoying a day out

In the evening, the most buildings around the lake
are lit up. Every thing looks festive

This is also the best place to hire cyclos, which are cycle-powered vehicles, and are a fun way to look around if you are not in the mood to walk. Cyclo tours are also quite popular, I believe, and can be booked through most tour agencies, or you could simply negotiate with a cyclo pusher on the road. I took a cyclo ride from the Opera House to catholic church. It was such a fun ride, because you sit in front (as opposed to the the cycle rickshaws in India that are pulled from the front. 

I spent quite some time at the French Quarter admiring the the majestic Opera House building, and the grand Sofitel Hotel. The character of Hanoi changes completely when you move from the Old Quarter to the French Quarter. The colonial French buildings are reminiscent of Paris and it did honestly remind me of the latter. Wide roads and well-paved footpaths characterize this part of the city. Unfortunately there were no shows at the opera house on the days I was at Hanoi. Had it been otherwise, I wouldn't have missed it for the world! 

I had my first little treat food here in the French Quarter, a stone's throw from the Sofitel Hotel from a little hole-in-the-wall shop selling icecream. I chose the chocolate-coconut flavour in a crispy cone. Yum! This costed me 15,000 dongs. 

The first of many

A sweet cyclo driver took me to the catholic church. 

Ah, Saint Joseph's Cathedral... This is a beautiful 19th century church built in a Gothic style, and was the first structure built by the French colonial government in erstwhile Indochina. The resemblance to the Notre Dam is uncanny, and it takes but one look to notice how closely the two resemble each other. 

This church kind of appears out of the blue,
with its towers almost sneaking up on you,
when you least expect it. I was enjoying my
cyclo ride, when all of a sudden the church
seemed to have risen from ground

The old wooden benches are shiny and strong

Inside the church, the stained glass
windows are lit up by the warm
winter sun

Near the church are a large number of boutique shops. I found most quite overpriced but did spot a cool one selling old propaganda poster prints. Now those who know me, I dig that stuff! And luckily enough the price was just perfect. I can't wait to put it up at home!

This shop is about 50 metres to the left
when you face the church,

For lunch I devoured a Bahn Mi, which is a kind of Vietnamese Subway with grilled meat and vegetables. 

My Bahn Mi lady

I idled for a while amidst the lanes and bylanes of the Old Quarter that sell everything from food to fashion, light fixtures to souvenirs. I bought my first box of coffee this afternoon before retiring to my hotel room to rest. 

Snails and shells! Yum! 

After a couple of hours, I ventured out for a long walk to visit train street.

Train street

Train street, or should call it selfie central? For those wondering, this is the name given to the street through which a daily train from Sapa passes by. This train goes right through the heart of the city, from the middle of a crowded market place. Is it worth a visit? Well. It was fun. The junction is now a tourist hotspot with a few cafes and pubs. I had my first egg coffee by the road at one of the cafes, with at least 30 other foreigners who materialized and dissipated within minutes of the train passing by. When I reached around 18:15 there was almost no one. But people started trickling in at around 18:45, and after the train passed through at 19:15, they had all disappeared in the blink of an eye! But I must say it was a pretty LONG train!

Empty cafe chairs that filled up minutes
before the train arrived

And, she is here!

I purchased a jacket on the way back. A nice, fluffy, inexpensive NorthFace jacket from one of the many, many Made in Vietnam stores scattered across the city. Some dinner and then it was time for a movie in bed and a good night's sleep.

Day 2: Ba Dinh Square and more

I covered a fair bit of ground on my second day in Hanoi. I started the morning with a lavish breakfast at the hotel. I hear it's one of the best in this price range! I cannot compare but will say this much. Breakfast was excellent!

I hopped on to a taxi and headed to the other side of town. 

Tree-lined pavement that lead to the
Presidential Palace
Presidential Palace. Interestingly I was told that the
privilege of using the front gate of this building is
reserved for the heads of states of only a few countries
of the world as a mark of respect. Even the Vietnamese
president is said to enter the building through a side gate!

Selfie time outside the Ho Chi Minh Museum

After a visit to the Ho Chi Minh Museum and mausoleum, I walked across to the One Pillar pagoda. This was somehow a major challenge because I had forgotten the Vietnamese name for this pagoda and my offline Google map wasn't giving me accurate directions. It took me more than an hour of aimless wandering across the massive boulevard facing the mausoleum, around the stunning yellow presidential palace, innumerable photos, coconut water, and a delicious steamed bun stuffed with pork and eggs, to finally, FINALLY, reach my destination! Needless to say, by this time I was pretty exhausted and in need for some more food and a place to relax - none of which I found, at least at that point!

Steam bun stuffed with tender pork and quail eggs.
This tasted a bit like a Tibetan tingmo, but better
because it is filled with mouth-watering goodness!

Eventually I found my way into a little restaurant and ordered a lime soda and a bowl of noodle soup. Wasn't too hot, I 'll admit but it did the job, and I found the right road to take me to the Temple of Literature. You must also visit Hi Chi Mihn's Stilt House when in this area. A small, traditional stilt house made of wood near the Presidential Palace where the president spent the last part of his life. 

In all, this is a great area to walk through. Most of the buildings here are works of art, and pavements are lined with trees. The Hanoi Citadel is also a short walk from this area, and a must-visit.

Temple of Literature

To return to the Old Quarter, I hailed a scooter taxi and this, I feel, is the best way to get around if alone. It's cheap, and it's a little crazy, but in Hanoi there always seems to be a method to the madness, so the traffic never really worried me. 

Towards the evening I visited the markets, and enjoyed some music around the Aldo square, before heading to dinner at little restaurant in the Old Quarter. 

Sweet and spicy grilled meat with a hint lemongrass
for 15,000 dong. Absolutely delicious!

Panorama shot. Shopping, food, and people 

Jenga, anyone?

Recommended Tours

The Hanoi Hop-on Hop-Off bus is a great way to see Hanoi, and ensure you don't miss out on any "important" spots. They have double decker open roof bus, so if that is the kind of thing you dig, I would say it's a good idea. 

The second thing I would recommend would be a walking tour through the Old Quarter, or perhaps a street food tour. 

But however you choose to see Hanoi, it will charm you without fail. It's just one of those cities that will make you happy, it will treat you kindly, and it will make you smile as climb into bed after a long day.