Golden Temple

The Golden Temple in Amritsar is one of the most spiritual places in India. The temple is a Sikh temple (aka gurduwara). It was constructed in 1604. Made entirely of gold, the temple is simply spectacular in its architecture and beauty teaching lesson of egalitarianism and humility.

Even though I grew up in north India, merely a four hours drive from Amritsar, I never had a chance to visit the Golden Temple before. Every time I planned a trip there, something or the other happened that prevented me from attaining this lifelong desire.

Fortunately, I made it last week. Amritsar is a small city in Punjab and very close to the India-Pakistan border. As a result of its location, the city can sometimes be unstable and unsafe, but lately no major cases of violence have taken place there.

After parking in the car garage, I walked through the busy streets of Amritsar where everything goes. If you don’t watch out, you can get run over in no time. There is a shoe deposit area before the temple where visitors need to drop off their footwear and walk barefoot for a few more yards on dirt roads before reaching the main entrance to the Golden Temple. Once there, worshippers must do ablution by washing their hands, feet and face.

The walk down the stairs gives a first glimpse of the gold of the temple which is a breathtaking sight. The temple itself stands in the middle of a lake and is surrounded by smaller temples made of white marble, a large courtyard and places for pilgrims to rest, eat and hydrate.

After soaking in the magnificent views of the temple, it was time to go inside and take blessing from the Sikh Gurus. First I bought some offering (Prasad) to offer to the priests. With hundreds of people visiting, there was almost two hours wait in the line before I could go inside. In the main temple, the priests chant away scriptures that are soothing to hear. Worshippers pay their respects by bowing down to the Guru’s, making their offerings and saying their prayers. Immaculate marble inscriptions adorn the walls and ceiling of the inside of the temple. The entire experience is very spiritual and refreshing to the soul.

I have been told the best time to visit is 4am when the temple opens and the crowds are thin. Also, that is the time when the Guru Grant Sahib (the holy book) is taken inside in a procession. When it’s dark, the temple lights up and make the gold glisten in the dark against the clear blue water. It’s definitely worth staying at one of the hotels overlooking the Gold Temple so that you can see it both in day and night.

Pilgrimage in the capital

Lotus TempleNew Delhi, the capital of India is perhaps the only city in the world where a vast number of different religions coexist with much harmony. The population of India is majority Hindu, but also includes a good number of Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists, Jains, Jews and Zoroastrians. If you want to visit all their places of worship and see how they differ in their preachings, theology, rituals and architecture, plan a visit to Delhi where all of these religions have managed to represent themselves fairly well.

The Lotus temple built 25 years ago is perhaps the only one of it’s kind. It is a giant structure shaped in the form of a lotus, placed in a pond of blue water and surrounded by manicured gardens. Started 150 years ago by Bahá’u’lláh, the Bahai Faith believes in equality of mankind and one God. It’s teachings are more spiritually than religion inclined, catering to new age believers around the world.

Hindu God'sHindu temples feature various God’s and Goddesses, each of who stand for a particular virtue. Hindu’s worship the respective temples based on what they are seeking at the time. There are also some temples that are all encompassing with deities of a number of the God’s. Laxshmi is the goddess of wealth, Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge, Shiva symbolizes fertility, Krishna love and prosperity. Finally Ram and Sita are the main idols and you will always find their statues in the middle of the temple. The Hanuman temple in New Delhi is perhaps one of the most frequently visited. Built in 1540, it boasts a tall statue of the Lord Hanuman (monkey God) and is one of the five temples of Mahabharata days. An important feature of the worship at this temple is the 24–hour chanting of the mantra (hymn) “Sri Ram, Jai Ram, Jai Jai Ram”, since August 1, 1964. It is claimed that this continuous chanting has been recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Of the 165 Jain temples in Delhi alone, the Lal mandir that was built in 1658 AD is the most famous. Jainism originated in India and is based on science of nature and man. Many of the beliefs stem from Buddhism and Hinduism, such as reincarnation, non violence and Moksha (or attainment of enlightenment). Jains do not believe in God, but in a supernatural power that may be the collective souls of the universe.

Don’t forget to visit the biggest mosque in India, the Jama Masjid built by the Mogul emperor Shah Jahan (who also built the Taj Mahal) in 1650. Constructed in Sandstone and white marble, it has domed pavilions, pillared corridors and a vast courtyard. Friday is the holy day of worship for Muslims. Islam is the second-most practiced religion in India, after Hinduism, with more than 13% of the country’s population.

 

India at first glance

The past week has been rather interesting and insightful. I have been in India, acting as a host and guide to my dear friend, Gina. This is her first time visiting India, even Asia. She is originally from US but currently living in Spain.

Chaos in the streets of IndiaThe first day we took a drive in Delhi, Gina pointed out the chaos and randomness of things that I was quite accustomed, and rather numb to having grown up here. “There’s a random cow in the middle of the street, a guy on a cycle with flowers in his carrier, a tea shack by the highway, stalls of groceries jutting out of run down structures, kids with goats” Gina exclaimed about hundreds of other things she saw in the most unexpected places. This pretty much defines the scene in India. There are auto-rickshaws, scooters, cycles, bullock carts, buses, cars and pedestrians on the same road without any rules, blaring horns randomly at each other, but still there is order in the chaos. Within that, the contrasts are even more spectacular. You will see million dollar homes next to slums, children begging for money knocking at the windows of Mercedes cars, women wearing saris covering their heads with modesty watching scantily dressed Bollywood actresses on their TV sets, five star hotels, Louis Vuitton showrooms and people earning less than $1 a day.

Copyright Go Eat Give

Orienting Gina with Indian culture and traditions has made me revisit it myself. I had been blindly following everything that was taught to me from a young age, but when someone else questions why things are a certain way, what do they mean, you need to think about it before being able to provide an explanation. India has a rich culture spanning thousands of years. It has over a billion people following several different religions. The society is somewhat tight, where family values, customs and people are given much importance. This means you can’t always do what you “feel like” as we often times take for granted living in the west. One thing Gina had a hard time with is when hosts would force her to eat even though she wasn’t hungry. Indians tend to show their love through food and it is considered rude if you refuse to eat what they offer when they are treating you.

Another thing she noticed is how we politely say “come” instead of “let’s go.” She thought it was a more gentle and inviting way of addressing each other.

I always knew that as a woman I had to dress conservatively in public places or men would ogle and I would draw unnecessary attention. Why is this the case and where does it stem from? Maybe the ancient believes of protecting women and hiding them behind veils in order to resist temptation. I don’t have the answer to that. All I know is some things you just don’t question and need to follow blindly.

How I celebrate Diwali


Growing up in India, Diwali was a huge affair. It is a festival celebrated by all of India (Hindu or not), sort of like New Year’s. Known as the festival of lights, the victory of good over evil, homecoming of Lord Rama and welcoming Goddess Lakshmi, Diwali is the biggest festival in India.

The scene during Diwali is not to be missed. The markets come alive with bright lights, crowded store offering sales and discounts to lure customers. Everyone is shopping gifts for friends, family and themselves. Children are coaxing their parents to buy more fireworks. Boxes of sweets are being loaded into rickshaws. Someone will then deliver each box to clients and friends. Jewelry stores are also doing good business selling 22 karat gold pieces to be adorned with traditional saris and salwaar kameez. The constant cracking of loud fireworks are disturbing the street dogs while occupying the kids all night long. Homes are lit with outdoor lights and diyas (clay lamps).

Since I moved to the US, I have missed watching the festivities as they use to unfold back in India. However, we Indians settled abroad have tried our best to recreate the cultural fete as best we can. Each year I head over to Lawrenceville Highway, GA (suburb of Atlanta) known also as “Little India.” Most Indian stores and restaurants are saturated in this half-mile radius. You can find everything from Indian groceries, Bollywood movies to wedding attire and authentic Indian gold and diamonds here.

My first stop is at one of the many boutiques to pick out a new outfit. It is customary to wear a new dress on Diwali day, just as you would on Christmas or your birthday. The women dress traditionally, in sari, salwaar kameez or lehnga. I pick one depending on my mood and my budget. A formal dress can cost anywhere from $100-500. If my husband has had a good year, he may also buy me matching gold earrings to go with my dress 🙂

After buying much needed groceries at Cherians, I head over to Gokul Sweets in Decatur, the closest I can come to a Halwai (sweet shop). Thankfully, the owner prepares fresh assorted Indian sweets daily. You can see the racks coming straight out of the kitchen! The sweets are prepared with ghee (clarified butter), sugar, milk, food coloring and nuts, cream, saffron, etc. You can mix and match your treats so you never get bored with the box you take home.

Celebrations are post or preponed to the nearest weekend as we don’t get a day off in the US. Generally, friends get together for an evening of food, drinks and mingling. I would decorate the front of my house, cook an elaborate Indian dinner and invite my Indian and non-Indian friends. We would wear our new garbs, eat and play games. Poker is a popular game played late into the night. I buy extra fireworks on July 4th and save them for the Diwali party. The kids enjoy the surprise and the adults are kids again, reminiscing their celebrations from childhood.

Retired couple discover homestays in India

My wife Mary and I made our first trip to India last September on a tour which included Agra, Jaipur and New Delhi, known as the Golden Triangle.

While we enjoyed the comfort and convenience of guided tours, we arrived in New Delhi early for two homestays to be able to connect with some of the people of India – not possible on standard tours.

We had read about a non-profit organization which serves as a clearing house for hosts who take pride in showing foreigners aspects of India that regular travelers don’t experience. Mahindra Homestays offers insights into the real India in homes located across the country in major cities as well as rural areas.

We selected a New Delhi B&B homestay with Chandrakant and Lakshmi Singh who’ve been hosting for more than two decades. Chandra wrote us: “I think we are going to enjoy your visit a lot. It may interest you to know that the village in which our housing estate has been developed is named after Lillian Carter and is called Carterpuri. She had stayed here as a Peace Corp worker in the 1960s and visited again during Carter’s presidency when the village was renamed in her honor!”

We arrived in New Delhi at the beginning of the Commonwealth Games, which attracts tens of thousands of participants and spectators. While Chandra was an official on the steering committee, he still found time to provide unique tours, including a personally guided stroll through the National Museum, the biggest Museum of India which holds more than two million works of exquisite art covering more than five thousand years of India’s cultural heritage.

A remarkable part of this tour was that we had this immense Museum to ourselves! We spent several hours there with Chandra on a Monday when the Museum is closed. But he does volunteer work there and had entry.  So we can definitely concur in the observation that “You would be hard pushed to find a more informed, articulate and animated guide than Chandra Kant and his tours are about getting a feel for the city rather than just trailing round monuments.” And Lakshmi is a wonderful cook who provided examples of some of the best local food.

Another homestay was with retired Indian Army Colonel Surindar Singh who provides free overnight hospitality through Servas. It’s a non-profit membership organization that “fosters understanding of cultural diversity through a global, person-to-person network promoting a more just and peaceful world”. (There are more than 700 hosts in India.) Rusty and I have stayed with more than 80 hosts around the world and are hosts in our Macon, Ga., home. I was on the board of US Servas and am now an interviewer.

Two decades ago, after I retired, Mary and I rented our house and traveled for more than three years, visiting many of the exchange students we hosted for 11 consecutive years. We agree with Miriam Beard: “Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.”

~ By guest blogger Richard (Dick) George

Blue Afza

One of my favorite drinks during summers in India was Rooh Afza, a refreshing rose concentrated drink. Rose flavored syrup that came in a bottle was added to ice cold water or milk and served over ice and found at every household. It was a perfect break in the hot afternoons; especially when guests came over, often unannounced as they always do in India.

Inspired by the sweet beverage of my childhood, I decided to create a healthier homemade summer drink incorporating freshly picked blueberries.  I also named it so that it reminded me of those good old days.

The syrup can be prepared ahead of time & stored in the refrigerator for 2-3 days. Kids and adults of all ages would love the sweet and juicy flavor, with the added fizz from the club soda. And you get a whole serving of fruit in your drink. If you must, add a splash of vodka for an adult flavor. All I can say is give it a try!

Serves: 2

Total Time: 1 hours (Prep: 15 minutes, Inactive: 45 minutes)

Ingredients:

2 cups blueberries

1 cup water

1/2 to 1 cup sugar or Splenda (depending on sweetness of the blueberries)

1 orange, juiced

1 lemon, juiced

8 oz Club soda

Directions:

In a medium heavy bottom saucepan, add all the ingredients except the club soda. Heat on medium till the liquid comes to boil & sugar starts to dissolves. Reduce heat to low & simmer for 15 minutes. Remove from heat. Transfer to a blender and blend until smooth. Remove any pulp by passing through a mesh strainer. Chill in refrigerator until ready to use.

Divide the blueberry syrup into two 12 oz- glasses. Add ice cubes. Finally, top off with 4 oz club soda into each glass. Serve immediately.

Not your everyday chicken curry

Chicken curry is a popular dish in India, served at every household and restaurant. The preparation however varies from region to region. The Karwar version of the chicken curry includes coconut and a concoction of spices. These are not your typical out of the box seasoning and a visit to an ethnic grocery store would be required. However, you can prepared the spice mixture ahead of time and store it in an air tight container in the freezer for a long time. 

Preparing the marinade:

1 cup fresh cilantro leaves

5 to 6 whole green chilies

2 teaspoon minced garlic

1 teaspoon minced ginger

1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder

Pinch of salt

 Blend all the ingredients in a blender. Add 2 tablespoon water to make a thick paste.

Marinating the chicken:

2 tablespoon plain yogurt

2 lbs chicken pieces (with bones)

Soak the chicken in yogurt and the marinade in a large bowl. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour so the juices get absorbed.

Making your own dry spice mixture:

 12 whole cloves

3 whole cardamoms

12 peppercorns

6 red dried chilies

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 teaspoon poppy seeds

3 teaspoons coriander seeds

1 tablespoon anise seeds

 Place a wok or large fry pan on medium heat. Once hot, add all the spices and roast for 3-5 minutes, stirring frequently. The spices would release an aroma once roasted. Do not brown them. Let cool at room temperature. Then use a coffee or spice grinder to grind the spices into a powdery consistency. Store in air tight container until ready to use.

 Finishing the spice blend:

 3 medium onions, coarsely chopped

3 medium tomatoes, coarsely chopped

1 1/2 cups grated coconut (unsweetened)

2 tablespoon vegetable or canola oil

 In a large fry pan, heat the oil. Then fry the onions and coconut lightly. Let cool completely. Then blend with dry spice mixture until thick paste in formed. All steps till this point can be completed ahead of time.

 Cooking the chicken:

 1 small onion, finely chopped

3 tablespoon vegetable or canola oil

1 teaspoon salt

In a medium size pressure cooker, heat the oil on medium heat. Fry the finely chopped onion till brown in color. Add the marinated pieces of chicken and fry it for 3 minutes. Add the spice mixture and salt to it and fry for another 2 minutes. Add a cup of water and pressure cook for approx. 7 minutes on medium heat. If the whistle blows before 7 minutes take the pressure cooker off the flame.

Serve warm with steamed rice.

An undiscovered gem from southern India

Karwar is a small town on the western coast of India, just south of Goa. It was an ancient site of sea trade visited by the Arabs, Dutch, Portuguese, French and later the British.  Karwar is still known for its pristine beaches and a bustling seaport.

Although a lot of information can be found on Goan cuisine, the cuisine of Karwar is largely a well kept secret. The two happen to have a few commonalities but still differ in taste, flavor and variety. You will not find any cookbooks revealing the regional recipes and the only way to get them is through a native. And so I did! One of my friends happens to be from Karwar. She has also lived in Mumbai and Goa, but is loyal to her Karwari roots. After months of persuasion, she finally let me into her classified kitchen closet in Atlanta where she showed me her stack of whole spices that I had never seen or heard of before. Among these was my new discovery – white kokum phool. Kokum is a small round fruit that has its origins in India. It has a sweet and sour taste, similar to tamarind. It is dried and sold in packet or made into powder. In Karwar cuisine, it is used as generously as salt and pepper.

During the course of the evening, we prepared shrimp fry, fish fry, and coconut chicken curry. The generous hostess had already cooked other side items to go with our banquet style dinner.

The shrimp and fish fry are prepared in the same manner and served as an appetizer.

 

 


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Shrimp Fry

 

1 teaspoon garlic paste

½ teaspoon turmeric powder

1 teaspoon red chili powder

½ teaspoon salt

½ lemon

1 lb medium shrimp, peeled, deveined and tails removed

½ cup vegetable or canola oil

½ cup semolina (known as Sooji at Indian stores)

Mix the first four ingredients in a small bowl. Squeeze the lemon juice into the spices and add 1 tablespoon of oil to make it pasty. Rub the spice mixture on the shrimps using the half of the lemon to coat. Leave aside for 5 minutes.

Heat oil in a large fry pan on medium temperature. Spread the semolina on a plate. Lightly coat each shrimp with semolina on both sides, and then add to the hot oil. Fry for 2 minutes on each side until golden brown. Serve immediately.

Tandoori in Iceland

When I visited Iceland in 2009, I wasn’t sure what to expect from its culinary scene. Iceland has known to be exorbitantly expense due to its distant location, extreme climate and scarce population. Out of its 300k citizens, only 4% of the population is employed in agriculture. They primarily grow potatoes, turnips, carrots, tomatoes and cucumbers. Other than that, the farmers keep cattle, horses and sheep. Being surrounded by waters, seafood is definitely a big source of food and export for the country.

I saw all of these items on the menu but did not dare try the horse meat. I try to stick to being a pescetarian whenever possible. While there were lots of options for seafood lovers, the most pleasant surprise I had was the Icelandic lobsters. They are very different than the North American lobsters, being smaller in size, almost like a prawn. Also, their texture is much softer and when cooked well, they melt in your mouth.

The Icelandic lobsters preparations varied at the different places I tried them at. In Vik, there was a huge plate of scampi style as well as a lobster meat pizza. In Reykjavik, there were lobster tails in a cream butter sauce with julienned vegetables.

Perhaps the best dish that I tried was tandoori lobster tails at an Indian restaurant in Reykjavik. There were a dozen tender juicy lobster tails perfectly marinated with spices and grilled to perfection. They were served with a mint yogurt chutney and fresh baked naan. Only if i could find the Icelandic lobsters here in the south, I would be preparing this recipe at every special occasion. Until then, just make do with regular American lobsters.

Recipe for Tandoori Lobster Tails

4 medium lobster tails, (removed from shells) meat only

½ cup plain yogurt

¼ cup tandoori paste

Mix the yogurt and tandoori paste in a large bowl, add the lobster tails. Cover and refrigerate for one hour. Heat a grill to 350F. Place the lobster tails on the greased grill surface and cook on each side for 2-3 minutes. Do not overcook the lobsters as they will become too dry and chewy. Serve immediately with mint chutney.

Leela’s Lobster Malai

I spent New Year’s Eve 2011 at the Leela Palace Kempinski hotel in Bangalore. It was a magnificent palace converted into a 5-star hotel, rated as one of the best in India. The architecture and gardens of the property are worth considering a tourist destination itself!

Even their restaurant is rated the best in town. The hotel advertised a special party to celebrate the occassion. At a steep entry fee of $100/ person, you would get access to an open bar, a mile long multi-cuisine buffet, entertainment and dance floor. Since I could not afford to stay there, I decided to splurge for New Year’s Eve at least. The place was adorned in a carnival theme, with colorful drapes and masks of every origin. There were two rooms with buffet tables that would put a King’s banquet to shame. Needless to say, it was worth every penny!

Here is a recipe from the web site that I tasted in the buffet. I love lobster and am always looking for ways to incorporate it into ethnic cuisines. Hope you like it too!

Lobster Malai –  Serves 4

Ingredients   Qty.
Large Fresh Lobster : 04 No (600-800 Gm. Each)
Fresh Onion Paste : 250 Gm.
Ginger Julienne : 20 Gm.
Green Chilli Finely Chopped : 15 Gm.
Fresh Coriander Chopped : 15 Gm.
Fresh Coconut Milk (Ist Extract) : 200 Ml.
Fresh Coconut Milk (2nd Extract) : 250 Ml.
Bay Leaf : 02 No
Cinnamon Powder : 02 Gm.
Spice Clove Powder : 02 Gm.
Coconut Oil : 110 Ml.
Turmeric Powder : a pinch
Salt : To taste
Ginger : 75 Gm.
Cumin Power : 08 Gm.

Preparation

  • Blanch the whole lobster in hot salted water. Take out the meat from the tail and cut length wise slices.
  • Heat oil in a kadai, put chopped green chilli and ginger julienne. Fry for sometime. Add fresh chopped coriander and fry well.
  • Add ginger, cumin powder and sauté well.
  • Add onion paste and sauté till the raw smell goes out.
  • Now add second extract of coconut milk and bring to a boil.
  • Put salt and turmeric powder and reduce the sauce to half.
  • Add cinnamon, clove powder and bay leaf.
  • Add first remove of coconut milk and lobster meat slices and simmer for sometime.
  • Garnish with ginger juliennes and fresh coriander sprig., serve hot with Malabar Parottas or Appam

 I appeared in the local newspaper the next day for being at the Faces and Masks party. You can see my picture on the DNA India web site.