Monday, 28 April 2014

Sautéed Mushroom with Butter Garlic Sauce

 
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day as it kickstarts your metabolism and keeps you charged up for the day. During childhood days I used to look forward to the weekends when my mother would prepare an array of feasts for breakfast which I would leisurely devour. Fluffy Luchis, tinkona porota(Triangular flatbread), Begun Bhaja(Fried Brinjal), Potol Bhaja(Pointed Gourd Fry),Cholar Daal (Lentil Soup), aloor dom and sometimes accompanied by sweets like Payesh (Rice Pudding), Kheer kodom, roshogolla, jilipi or Golapjam. I was never a fussy eater and loved traditional or experimental food likewise. During those days no one told us to count the number of Luchis we had or the number of sweets we pigged on. Calorie count was something unknown. The deep fried, dipped in oil stuffs were actually savored with extreme delight. Everything was considered healthy as long as you relished it. It was a convention to stuff you kids well which would help them grow – horizontally or vertically was not actually a concern area.  Lean and thin kids were tagged as unhealthy and their parents made to feel like a social outcast as they didn’t stuff their kids enough. All foods were healthy, there was no concept of organic or farm fresh food to be safe and others to be unsafe.

I loved to eat and was always on a bit “healthy” side. I remember when I reached my teens and was suddenly going through this height surge, I lost oodles of weight. I had almost started looking like an anorexic. And every time I went to the local market with my dad or mom all the known uncles and aunties would twitch their nose in disapproval over my lean look. They almost indicated that my parents were probably having my share of food as well! But I was not that unhappy as I had started looking taller due to the lean frame and I could slip into any dress and look good. Unfortunately my lean look vanished as soon as the hormones came to be at peace. From then on it has always been a struggle for me to please the weighing scale.


Anyway as the years rolled by and our lives became superfast and enjoying a meal leisurely without a worry in the world became a thing of past all the new age food concepts started staring at us from the magazine covers and internet sites. “5 foods to boost a flat tummy” or “5 fruits to detoxify your body” and every other 5 tips in the world you could ever think of. Now we were talking of healthy breakfasts and wholesome cereals. White bread replaced by brown breads, full cream milk replaced by toned milk, butter replaced by margarine, cornflakes replaced by wheatflakes, more fruits and less fried food. Luchis and Parathas became a strict no-no anytime during the day let alone breakfast. We have now started becoming more English than Indian.

During such a time when you only have bread, cereals or oats as an option how do you pep up your breakfast course with something interesting. Trying out different type of egg white omelets is surely a good option. But if you want to have vegetarian and yet keep your protein intake intact you can always fall back on the most reliable candidate – mushroom. It’s the only non-meat that comes close to aping the flavors of meat. They are a powerhouse of nutrients and give a big health boost.
The humble looking button mushroom packs quite a few antioxidants than its other expensive variants. The great thing about mushrooms is that they are flavor sponges. They can soak up so much flavor that even while you store them in the refrigerator you should take care so that it does not absorb any smell from the other ingredients inside the fridge. The earthy flavors of button mushroom when combined with the right ingredients gives off amazing flavors.


There are many people I know who dislike the earthy smell of mushroom and hence would not eat them. Here’s a simple and delicious recipe of mushroom that is bound to even make the worst of mushroom haters appreciate the dish.

A blend of butter, garlic, vinegar and some herbs make this sautéed mushroom recipe healthy and full of flavor.

Preparation Time: 5 minutes 

Cooking Time: 10 minutes

Serves: 2


Cuisine: Continental
Ingredients:
  • Butter - 2 tbsp
  • Salt as per taste
  • Garlic cloves - 4 fat (finely chopped)
  • Pepper Power - 1/4th tsp
  • Button Mushroom - 100 gm
  • Vinegar - 1/4th tsp
  • Soya Sauce - 1/4th tsp 
  • Oregano - 1/2 tsp
  • Chilli Flakes - 1/2 tsp
Procedure:

1. Wash the mushrooms properly and wipe them clean. Slice the mushroom in halves or quarters depending on the size.

2. Melt butter in a saute pan and toss in the finely chopped garlic. Wait for the heavenly aroma of butter infused garlic to come. The slightly pungent slightly buttery fusion. Add the pepper powder and saute for a second.
 
3.  Add the mushroom and coat it with the butter garlic sauce. Saute for a couple of minutes. Add the vinegar and soya sauce and fold in. Vinegar will give a slight tanginess to the sautéed dish.


4. Add salt as per taste. Note that butter also has salt so add salt accordingly.


5. Reduce the flame to the lowest and cover the sauté pan. The mushroom will get cooked in its own moisture. Stir occasionally to ensure the mushroom or garlic doesn’t burn. Cook for 10 minutes till the mushrooms are cooked

6. Switch off the heat and toss the mushrooms with oregano. I had some leftover oregano mix from the home delivered pizza which I used here. And it really gelled with the taste.

Plate it in a serving dish and sprinkle some chilli flake over it. Serve the buttery garlicky mushrooms hot with buttered bread toast. Or simple have the sublime mushrooms on their own as a side dish with a chilled glass of Wine.






Thursday, 17 April 2014

Journey to the mystical land of Sikkim - Part 5 (Concluding Part)

“The only Zen you can find on the tops of mountains is the Zen you bring up there.”
Robert M. Pirsig 


 Day 5: Ravangla to Asangthang (near Namchi)


The car for Asangthand and NJP drop the following day was supposed to be arranged by the owner of hotel Reegyal. We had reminded the same last evening as well to which he said it will be done. We were supposed to leave Ravangla by 8 AM. But even at 8 AM no car was arranged. We had a mild tiff with the owner for this. Apart from the elderly attendant, the services from all others were very disappointing. The owner asked us to have our breakfast till the time he fixed a car.

Breakfast comprised of Puri and Aloo subzi. Finally the owner fixed a local chap who would drop us at Asangthang and then also take us to NJP the following day. We gave tip to the elderly attendant and left the hotel.

The car of this new driver was pretty well maintained with plush seats. He drove very carefully throughout which was very admirable at his age, especially the way he maneuvered the curves. The other driver was aged but was a rash driver. He played Sikkimese songs on way which aptly complimented the environs we were travelling through.

The plan was to visit Temi Tea Garden, Botanical garden, Samdruptse on way to Asangthang. Check in the hotel and have lunch. Visit Char Dham by the evening and night to see light effects. The mountain roads were still asleep doused in a thick quilt of fog. The visibility beyond the road side tress was almost zero. The branches of the trees were drooping under the weight of the accumulated dew overnight, falling like raindrops on the road. Some of the dew began to show up on the car window also, fogging up the scene beyond. We were very comfortable inside the warmth of the car listening to melodious songs. On way we also witnessed a mound of powdery snow by the roadside, which made us quite excited anticipating more of it. But that was it we didn’t see any more snow further down the road. Maybe the Hotel owner at Reegyal was correct; it would start snowing in Ravangla soon.

 Temi Tea Garden : Temi Tea Garden is just 18 Km from Ravangla in South Sikkim. Initially I had crossed out the plan of visiting Temi as I had already visited a number of Tea gardens in West Bengal and kerala to last me a lifetime. But from the moment we came to Sikkim everyone was suggesting to visit Temi. An elderly lady at the M.G Marg in Gangtok told us to visit it for sure and also told us that she ran a school for the local kids nearby. She said it so sweetly that the plan was made then and there.

The Temi Tea Garden was established in 1969 by the Government of Sikkim and is the lone Tea garden of Sikkim. The Estate spreads out on a moderate hill slope along the highway. It also touches the bottom of Tendong Hill of West Sikkim. The 435 acres of unending green beauty leaves the tourist asking for more.

During the entire journey to Temi Garden, we were mesmerized by the unfolding series of picturesque landscapes, fresh mountain air and sailing cream-like clouds. The tall Pine (Dhupi) trees on either side of the road leading to the Tea Estate gives a character to the place. During Autumn the Cherry trees start to bloom along the lines of the estate. The floral explosion of colours are majestic in true sense, but we were not fortunate enough to see it.

The entire span of the garden cannot be seen from the road alone, one has to walk inside it to experience it fully. We stepped into the Estate and was awestruck by the sheer beauty and simplicity of the surroundings.Short concrete steps lead into the Tea Garden. The Tea bushes span on either side of the steps. White prayer flags lined the steps. The presence of prayer flags in a Tea garden induced a spiritual atmosphere all around. Visitors are not allowed to walk elsewhere inside the garden, they have a designated viewpoint till which they can walk down. From one end of the garden one can get a very clear view of Kanchenjunga but we were as usual unfortunate.

The garden is fully organic and produces one of the finest teas in the world. The original tea bushes had been brought from Darjeeling. But cultivation in a different climate and process imparted a distinct taste to Temi Tea. There are different quality of tea produced by Temi. The golden flowery orange pekoe is the best quality . Next comes the popular brand of 'Sikkim Solja' followed by 'Mystique' and 'Kanchanjunga Tea'. It is also sold in the form of dust tea.  If brewed in the right way Temi tea gives a delicate but rich flavor, complex bouquet, and beautiful reddish-amber color almost like that of lemon tea. Temi has a high demand in the international market, hence most of the best quality tea is exported some specific qualities are sold in Kolkata market.

The Tea garden has a restaurant outside which serves snacks and tea. We ordered milk tea which had a repelling burnt milk flavor and tasted really bad. This made us question whether we made a right choice by buying so many packets of Temi Tea from Ravangla and also deterred us from buying more from the estate outlet shop. But when we prepared the tea back home it was really something to die for. My grandma commented that after tasting the Temi tea she wouldn't be able to enjoy any other tea.

Tendong State Bio Diversity Park: Nearly a Km from Temi we came across the Bio Diversity Park. The stone gate looked like an entrance to some fairytale castle. I really liked the antique look of the entrance. There was no one at the gate. The place looked deserted only a couple of local boys were sitting inside.

The park  is situated in a ridge between the two highest hills in the state — Maenam and Tendong —at an altitude between 1,400m and 2,050 m above sea level. This place used to be a reserve forest before being declared as a park. There are groves of Walnut, Chestnut, Oak and Alder besides the medicinal plants. Huge trees and bushes surrounded every place. There are also some beautiful flowers in the park. But it was so deserted and the dense foliage felt a bit eerie so we didn't stay there for long. A few pics later we were back to the car.


We proceeded towards Namchi which is 18 Km from Temi Tea Estate. The capital of south Sikkim district Namchi is situated at an altitude of 1,675 m (5575 feet) above sea level and lies off the road between Melli and Jorethang. Gangtok is 92Km from Namchi. It is a small town in the lap of nature which is fast growing into a major tourist attraction of south Sikkim due to the virgin nature and a few important tourist spots. Thankfully the place was much less cold than Ravangla.

Nam means “sky” and chi means “high”, thus translating into a place situated at top of the sky, Namchi is stunningly beautiful. The picturesque laid out hills and valleys with a view of the Khangchendzonga range and the peaceful lifestyle of the local people complement each other. It is pollution free, plastic bag free, gutkha and cigarette free zone; hence the air that you breathe in is so pure you kind of get addicted to it.

History says that the complete state of Sikkim was once beneath the reign of the Chogyals. According to the local folklore, Namchi is the place where Pende Ongmoo, the treacherous Sikkimese princess was brought to justice. Pende Ongmoo had cheated and poisoned one of the Chogyals and she was killed for her deed. Locals believe her spirit still haunts the foothills of Ghurpisey.


Samdruptse :On way Namchi we stopped at Samdruptse - an important landmark of the area. Samdruptse, which translates as “The wish fulfilling hill” in local Bhutia language is a hill nestled at an altitude of 7,000 feet above the sea level at a distance of 5 km from the town of Namchi. It is said that Samdruptse hill is actually a dormant volcano and that the Buddhist monks visit the place to offer prayers to the volcano to keep it calm.

Crossing the ornamental gate of Samdruptse at the foothills we began our ascent through the snaking mountain road upwards. The fog had become dense and heavy by then. Our car stopped at the parking lot. In front of the parking space was a shopping complex with souvenir shops and food joints. We walked towards another gate where we had to pay an entry fee of Rs. 50 per person. The path leading to the main building is dotted with colourful prayer flags and chants of Om mani padme hum playing in small speakers along the way. It creates a similar kind of ambiance as Buddha Park.

It was a short walk and soon we reached the main premises. Painted in shimmering copper, bronze and undertones of royal blue, the magnificent 135 ft tall Padmasambhava or Guru Rinpoche Statue is the highlight of the Samdruptse hill. It is is supposed to be the tallest statue of the great saint in the whole world. The elegance and the delicateness of architectural marvel is remarkable.  The statue can be seen from miles around Namchi, rising like a golden cone amongst the dense forest area surrounding it.The only down point is that the surrounding walkable area is rather small for which one is not able to get a full length view of the huge statue from a required distance which was the biggest advantage of Buddha Park in comparison.According to the guidebook - " In the statue, the Guru is seated on a lotus pedestal. On the right hand, he holds a five-pronged vajra at his heart. In tantric traditions of Buddhism, the vajra is symbol for the nature of reality or sunyata indicating endless creativity, potency, and skillful activity.On the left hand, which rests in the gesture of equanimity, he holds a skull-cup in the center of which is a vase of longevity filled with nectar of deathless wisdom.

Cradled in his left arm he holds the three-pointed khatvanga (trident) symbolizing the Princess consort (Mandarava). Its three points represent the essence, nature and compassionate energy (ngowo, rangshyin and tukjé). Below these three prongs are three severed heads, dry, fresh and rotten, symbolizing the three kayas. The three kaya being dharmakaya or Truth body which embodies the very principle of enlighten and knows no limits or boundaries. The second kaya is Sambhogakaya or body of mutual enjoyment which is a body of bliss or clear light manifestation. The third kaya is Nirmanakaya or created body which manifests in time and space. The Nine iron rings adorning the prongs represent the nine yanas. The khatvanga is also adorned with locks of hair from dead and living mamos and dakinis, as a sign that the Master subjugated them all when he practiced austerities in the Eight Great Charnel Grounds. The guru wears a lotus hat and adorns a silk cloak, Dharma robes and gown."
Gate of Samdruptse

We left our shoes at the bottom of the building and climbed up. The hilltop attracts a large number of tourists and locals every day. People come here to offer their prayers to the Guru. We walked through the hall to the terrace to get a close up view of the idol. People had lighted incense sticks in their hands and were chanting mantras as they went around the idol. One local gentleman asked me how did I like the place. I told him it was spiritually uplifting. I was also curious to know the significance of prayer flags every where even in people's homes. The gentleman explained that the flags were so placed around the house or building that as the winds will blow past them it will bring in the goodness of all those prayers written on the flags. The air touching the flags and then anyone/anything would cleanse him/it spiritually. I found the explanation so fascinating. Such a simple belief that would make the entire surrounding environment spiritual instead of just oneself.We spent some more time looking at the intrinsic design patterns on the idol before coming down.

The ground floor has a collection of old photos from the time of independence and thereafter. The building is also a storehouse of many religious books. There was a small souvenir shop in the ground floor from where we purchased a cd of the Buddhist chants.From the main shopping area also purchased prayer flags and a japmala. We had vegetable momos from the food joints in the complex while enjoying the foggy ambiance. Once done we headed towards Namchi.


We had our bookings at Assangthang which is a model village situated at a distance of 2 Km from Namchi. We crossed the main city center of Namchi which was quite a busy place and drove towards the less crowded Assangthang. Once we left Namchi the landscape again serene with a couple of houses here and there, but mostly bountiful nature all around. On way we saw the upcoming football stadium of the town – the Baichung Stadium built in the honor of footballer Baichung Bhutia, a revered citizen.

Soon we reached Assangthang and were from a distance greeted by a Gold and Ivory building – a sharp contrast to the local dwellings we noticed around. Our car stopped in front of the beautiful building and the driver informed us that it was the Sai Baba mandir of Sikkim. We were pretty surprised to know that Sai who we thought was well known only across the western part of the subcontinent and some part of north and eastern states had his impression in this north eastern part of India as well, and that too such a big temple dedicated in his name. We asked a few locals what was the exact connection of Sai Baba with Assangthang but nobody was aware of it.  Actually before coming to Sikkim we had a usual notion that most people were followers of Buddhism. But on the contrary we discovered that majority of the population were followers of Hinduism. Maybe that’s the fact which attributed towards the creation of this mandir in such a remote location.
Red Chillies drying on the patio of the Homestay

Our hotel Mount Bowl was bang opposite to the Sai Mandir. The driver told us that we can visit the Sai Mandir after freshening up in the hotel.  More than a hotel it was a homestay. A shiny dark green building was an equally contrasting architecture as the Sai Mandir among the otherwise subtle colored ambience all around. The owner of the hotel is a young and soft-spoken Nepali lad named Sachin who manages the hotel along with his younger brothers and cousins. They also have a small shop outside the hotel premises which sells tea, coffee, snacks and meals.Their family occupies the ground floor of the three storied building. We were greeted by his grandma and the house dog – Lazy. Indeed a funny name for a dog. While checking us into the room, Sachin told us the story behind the name. When Lazy was small he kept sleeping always and was very lethargic to do anything. Hence they named it as Lazy. But later on they came to know its lethargy was due to some ailment he had but by that time the christening was already done. So the name persisted even if he was a superactive doggie now. The building was pretty much unoccupied hence we were offered a higher price room without additional cost. The steps of the building were very steep and we were almost panting like a dog by the time we reached the top floor to our rooms. There was a common balcony in front of the rooms which opened to the grand view of Sai Mandir and the range of mount Khangchendzonga (during unclouded conditions). We were pretty pleased with the view and stood there admiring the scene for some time.  Sachin told us that the entire span of land viewed from the balcony (which was far and wide till the Helipad) belonged to their family. He also informed that lunch was a totally vegetarian affair since pilgrims came to visit Sai Mandir during the day. At night however we would be served chicken. We were good with that. Any dish in this pure mountain environment would taste great.

Sai Mandir : We freshened up quickly. It was almost 12 when we came down to visit Sai Mandir. It’s one of the lesser known tourist spots of South Sikkim and hardly finds mention in any guide book. The architecture is very pretty and intrinsic. The sun rays reflect off the gold plating and bedazzle the human eye. On a clear day one gets a panaromic view of Mt. Khangchendzonga from the temple.  It has a manicured garden with orange marigolds lining both sides of the pebbled path to the two storied main building. Shoes have to be opened before entering the premises. Before entering the main building one has to enter their name, contact and phone number in the register maintained by the guard. 
The building is not as huge as the original shrine of Shridi, but its area is also noteworthy. The ground floor accommodates devotees for singing hymns in praise of Shridi Baba and the first floor provides dwelling to the marble statue of Sri Shridi Sai Baba and ten other beautiful paintings of Lord Vishnu (Hindu God) in ten different incarnations. The Sai idol looks an exact replica of the one at Shirdi.  The ceiling of the Sai Mandir is painted like the sky, with clouds and stars adoring it. It’s so beautifully painted that you can spend quite some time noticing the ceiling itself. We prayed before Sai Baba and then the caretaker gave Prasad to everyone present. The caretaker also informed us that during the auspicious days a whole lot of crowd gathers in this mandir for offering prayers.

The entire temple is bedecked with gold plating decorations. We noticed some sparrows perched in the tiny gaps of the decorations inside which they had their nests. The best part of Sikkim is everywhere you can see loving co-existence of animals and humans. They preserve nature as their own and hence nature has also given its abundance to this region.

We spent some quality time in and around the temple and then went back to the Hotel shop for lunch. There is a sitting place with three tables outside and a couple of tables inside. We preferred to sit inside as it was a bit chilly outside. Lunch was a simple fare consisting of steamed rice, yellow daal, squash subzi, cabbage subzi, a tangy achar and fried papad. The Squash subzi was very tasty. Chayote or Squash is a popular vegetable in the north eastern hilly regions of India and grows abundantly without much care and attention. I became a big fan of the vegetable instantly.  They served generous portions of food and even ladled out more if asked.

Post lunch we decided to walk to the Assangthang Helipad, which is almost a kilometer from Sai Mandir. The afternoon sun was pleasant with a mild breeze. The road was practically empty with a few local people taking an afternoon walk like us. We met a cordial young Sikkemese mom also taking a walk with her two kids on way. We asked her way to Helipad and she gave us the directions. She also joked about becoming a tourist guide to her friends standing on the road side. The young mom was so very pretty. She had cheeks like fluffy apples and there was a constant blush due to the cold weather. She was also going to the helipad for an afternoon walk and walked along with us.

We saw orange orchards on the way. We saw only one more homestay along the way, a little distance from ours. There was a cobblestone way leading down through the meadows and forests which looked tempting, but the young mom told us it led to the villages in the hills and it was not a safe way for tourists. Quaint huts with red tiled roofs were sporadically built on either side of the road. Most of the homes had beautiful arrangements of potted flowering plants. We stood here and there to observe the lifestyle of people and the nature. There were delicate grass flowers almost hidden away in the carpet of grass along the sideways. The undulating valley below looked very mesmerizing in the pale afternoon sun. We could see the shimmering Samdruptse statue nestled faraway in the olive green hills. Farmers were busy arranging and sorting out their crops. We passed them and came across a school where little children were playing with a ball. The road further bifurcated, we continued on the one going up.

Helipad: When we were almost near the Helipad we could hear loud music coming from somewhere, which was quite uncharacteristic of the area. As we walked further and reached the entry point of the Helipad we saw a group of people frolicking at one end of the Helipad. The entry of the Helipad was being manned by two local kids. They were charging entry fee for the vehicles only.
The Helipad

The atmosphere around the Helipad was a laid back one. We saw many families, large groups and lovebirds occupying various corners of the Helipad. Seemed like more than a Helipad it was a Picnic arena. It was quite obvious that the Helipad was not frequently used for what it was built. The last time a helicopter landed was with our president Mr. Pranab Mukherjee when he came to Namchi for inaugurating the Siddheshwar Dham in 2013.

The picnickers had brought large speakers and music systems with them and playing loud music while the food was being cooked. The music didn’t feel as bad as it was an open area.   At an altitude of 5000 ft the Helipad is a great place to get a view of Mt. Khangchendzonga. On a clear day the Temi Tea garden can also be seen far away in the backdrop. The Gangtok & Namchi helipads are the only civilian helipads in the state. More than a Helipad these are Heliports, a small airport only suitable for Helicopter landing.

The area is quite big and windy due to the altitude. We walked across the Helipad towards the valley. We could not get much of a view as most of the part was fog covered. Also we felt the lovebirds would get disturbed due to our presence. It seemed like we were the only tourists out there, all others were locals who came to the helipad for spending fun time with family. Read somewhere that fairs are also held in the Helipad.

Some hawkers were selling roasted peanuts, spiced puffed rice, and chickpea medley near the picnickers. We bought some roasted peanuts and settled down on the culvert of an under construction building. From there we could get a panoramic view of the Helipad. On the side was a canteen sort of place where we saw people having noodles and cold drinks. The picnickers were just by our other side. There was a small girl in that group who would wobbly shake a leg or two whenever there was music with fast beats. She saw us observing her and shyly ran behind their car. A later while she again emerged and peeked as us smiling. We saw an elderly lady mostly her granny getting up and start gyrating to the beats. Granny was totally unperturbed by what anyone might say and was totally engrossed in dancing. She also seemed a bit drunk, but that was quite common in cold areas. The little girl soon gave company to her and it was really some performance! I got it recorded in my camera.

The silence of the place had a very calming effect and we didn’t feel any tiredness instead of continuously roaming around from morning. In fact we felt much rejuvenated after spending time on the Helipad. The young mom with her kids sat chatting with the kids manning the entry of the Helipad. We also saw Sachin our homestay owner drop by for some time. It seemed everyone knew everyone in this small city.

Finally when it was almost 3.30 PM we decided to head back as we were scheduled to visit Siddheshwar Dham at 4 PM. We walked down slowly absorbing every bit of nature on the way. We stood by the school for some time observing the jolly little kids. It took nearly 20 minutes to reach our hotel. We still had time on our hands so we sat down for having tea. There were a lot of street doggies who were roaming outside the shop along with Lazy. We bought two big packets of biscuit and fed every one of them including Lazy who was as eager to eat as others. Once fed lazy began to play with a puppy in the courtyard. Sachin told us that it was his usual routine in the evening.

Sachin and his family had a small farm sort of place in the backyard they produced fresh vegetables like brinjals, tomatoes, chillies, corn and pumpkins. We saw a pile of pumpkins by the sides which were just plucked. He also told us that he had gone to the Helipad to get a new puppy for his home. We were excited to hear that and wanted to meet the new member. It was a mix of Spitz breed. His fur was all ruffled and appeared a little uncomfortable, maybe because of the new environment.  He was a cuddly little ball of fur and soft to hold. They were yet to decide a name for him. Sachin told they would observe its nature for a day or two and then give a suitable name.

Our driver came and we proceeded towards the last sightseeing point of Sikkim tour – The Siddheshwar Dham.

Char Dham: Siddheshwar Dham or Char Dham is situated at Solophok Hill at a distance of 5 Kms from Namchi. Solophok Hill has a historical and religious significance, as it is believed that visiting this place washes away one’s sins.We were charged Rs.50 as entrance fee. The car drove around a spiral path on one side of which we noticed was the Yatri Niwas and the restaurant and came to a halt before the main entrance to the complex.

Frankly speaking I was not at all looking forward to visiting a place which was a replica of the famous Hindu Char dhams.Amidst such beautiful natural scenery, going to see something man made didn't make much sense to me. But somehow when we entered and saw the huge idol of Lord Shiva against the backdrop of the dusky sky, it sure looked very beautiful. Bags are not allowed hence we only took our money bags and left the handbacgs in the car. No outside food or plastic bottles are allowed inside. At the main entrance fee was charged for the DSLR. The complex was almost deserted as we had arrived almost during the closing time.

We had to keep our shoes in bags and hang them on the stand. The entire complex was very neat and clean. And it was surely a vast complex. The souvenir shops were by the side of the place where we kept our shoes. But since we had to see the idols we thought of visiting the souvenir shops on return.
Rameshwaram & Badrinath Dham

It was a beautiful evening. We walked around the main complex area. The guidebook stated that Siddhesvara Dham has been created over 29.9 hectares at Solophok hilltop,at a cost of Rs 56.51 crore. It was the dream project of Chief Minister Pawan Chamling which was started in the year 2005 has been completed now. A Ropeway is being constructed from Samdruptse to Namchi town and then to Char Dham so that tourists can cover the three beautiful viewpoints while enjoying the panoramic vista from a bird's eye view.
Dwarka Dham
The first statue that welcomed us was the 18-feet statue of Kirateshwar a hunter incarnation of Shiva.In Hindu mythology, it is believed that Lord Shiva, after losing Sati in Agnikund, had gone into seclusion and became a hunter in the forests of Sikkim. Siddhesvara Dham has a 108 ft tall statue of Shiva, replicas of the 12 Jyotirlingas and models of sacred Chardhams of Hindus (East - Jagannath, West - Dwarika, South - Rameshawaram & North - Badrinath) which stands promisingly among the surreal surroundings of Solophok hill,befitting the mythological setting behind the establishment of the original Dhams . Even though you know these are all replicas, still your head will automatically bow down in reverence due to the holy ambiance of the place. The gigantic Statue of Shiva erected at the highest point of the hilltop, is the epicenter of complex and the jyortirlingas surround the statue. Devotees who will not get the oppertunity to visit all these places in their lifetime can come here to visit all these holy places under one roof.

One by one we visited the four dhams where the Sandhya Aarti or the Evening Prayers were being performed. It was very peaceful and we felt like we could sit there forever. It was completely like any holy place in India minus all the crowds and long lines. Infact it felt like the best holy place I have ever visited, it was so peaceful that just by being there seemed like a meditation in itself. We could feel how it felt visiting Badrinath with all the beautiful mountains towering around. The idols inside the Jyortirlinga replicas were exactly made like the original ones, wherein every Shivlinga had a different look. I had visited the original jyotirlinga of Trimbakeshwar and the one at Siddhesvara Dham was an exact replica.
Jyotirlinga

Finally we moved into the main Shiv Temple. The Sandhya Aarti was going on and it was being transmitted through the small speakers all around Siddhesvara Dham creating a cascading echo all around. Four priests were performing the aarti inside the main chamber. The chants were reverberating all around. We stood there for sometime before we started to go back. It was already evening and the sky had become dark. The entire complex was lit up with lights and looked ethereal. Now we knew why everyone suggested us to visit the Char Dham by night. We spent some more time around the Char Dhams and them made our way back. By that time the souvenir shops had closed down so we could not buy anything from there.


We went towards the car and from there we could see the illuminated Shiva Statue standing among the temples. We saw it for the last time before we left for the hotel.


Back to Hotel : After such a memorable sightseeing we headed back towards our hotel. It was already dark outside. As we drove back we saw there were no street lights as such through the curvy mountainous road. Only the head lights of the car illuminated the path ahead. It was a bit scary but adventurous too. Then we understood why everyone suggested not to visit Kaluk which had bad roads. Bad roads with no lights surely meant trouble. The roads were pretty empty apart from one or two cars passing and that too at 6PM. It was nearly late night for small hamlets like Assangthang. We reached the hotel premises in a short time. The Sai Mandir was illuminated brightly but all curtains were drawn and entrance closed. We had a talk with Sachin and he informed us that dinner will be served in the room by 8PM. He also told us that he had got a new dog today afternoon and they were getting him accustomed with the family members. We expressed our desire to meet the new member before we left next day and he agreed. We bought some sweet tamarind toffees from his shop and headed towards the room.

Some other tourists had occupied the adjacent rooms, mostly young boys it seemed from the ruckus they were making. Soon after they left. We freshened up a bit and then came to the balcony. At a distance we could see the shimmering Shiv Murti on one side and on the other side of the mountain the gleaming Samdruptse statue. It felt so heavenly, with pin drop silence all around, chilly mountain air and the presence of such holy places around us. We stood there absorbing every moment of our last night stay in this wonderful country. We could see below in the kitchen the family members were preparing food. They still cooked on wood and charcoal. We could smell the smoke from below. The valley really looked very very beautiful and we felt as if time could stop right there. We didn't want to go back.
The Hotel & Dinner

It was getting cold and we came back inside our room. It was nearly 8PM and we were watching some daily soap, when Sachin's cousin came with the dinner. He apologized for serving dinner early because it was almost their time to retire to bed. We said it was okay as we were also feeling very hungry by then.

They had served everything in huge proportions. We wondered that most of it will go to waste as we wont be able to eat so much. Dinner consisted of Rice, Dal, Squash curry, Papad, pickle and chicken curry. We started eating and everything was super tasty especially the Chicken curry was simply out of this world. Best that I have ever tasted. It was mostly marinated and slow roasted over charcoal and then made into a curry. The smokey flavors were richly infused into every fiber and it was juicy too. In no time we discovered that we had finished every bit of food they had served which surprised us to no limits. But the cooking was such finger licking good that no one could have resisted finishing every morsel.

We were very tired and after the heavy food we felt sleepy. So we retired for the last day of our stay.

Day 6: Asangthang to NJP

We had to catch the Teesta Torsa Express in the afternoon hence everyone suggested to start early with almost 6 hours in hand even if the distance was of three hours. This was because road construction was going on and there were chances of road blockage for hours. Hence we decided to start at 6AM. We woke up at 5 and it felt like midnight. The water was super chilly. Somehow we freshened up and came down.

Lazy & Crazy
The household was already up. Everyone was doing their morning chores. Sachin greeted us and his mother offered us Tea. While having tea Sachin got the new member of the household out for us to see. It was some breed of a Spitz who was yet to be named. He was cute as a button and eager to be hugged by anyone. The time spent with the small bundle of joy really made our day. Later on we came to know that Sachin had named him Crazy rhyming with Lazy.

After expressing our thanks we started for our returning journey. Slowly the sun was coming up. We saw Lazy roaming on the road. We almost bade a tearful goodbye to Asangthang and left with a bagful of memories.
Market Place on way back

The backward journey was almost hurdle free. We took an alternate way to NJP as on the other work was going on. It was obvious that this road was less frequented by vehicles because there were certain patches on the road where there was actually no existence of any road. Only pebbles and boulders stretched a kilometer. And let me not even mention how frightened we were while passing over it but our driver maneuvered well. As we moved on we saw the heavy whipped cream like fog rising up through the valley. At times the visibility got so poor that we could barely see what was in front of us. As if we were moving through a dungeon of fog. As the sun rose higher slowly the fog disappeared and by that time we had reached the city limits. 
The Dense fog on way back
The backside of the shack & one kind of Spinach
We stopped for some breakfast at a Sikkimese roadside restaurant. The small shack was located just by the side of the beautiful Teesta. We ordered breakfast and went to the backside to see Teesta clearly. The local people told us we could walk down the slope while our food was being made and visit Teesta up close. The temptation was too much so we tried to come down the slope and understood that it was only suited for the mountain goats and the local people. After a futile try and skidding we came back to the shack. Soon our breakfast was served which consisted of piping hot Chapatis, Squash curry, black chickpea curry and some pickle. It was a simple and yummylicious meal. We bought some local made chocolates before continuing our journey.
The Breakfast

Nothing much happened after that and we reached the NJP station by 10 AM itself. It was a long long wait after that as Teesta Torsa kept delaying infinitely. We had our lunch at the railway canteen. We took a fish thali and the Rohu Fish was really good. Our train was scheduled at 4PM. But we gradually came to know from regular travelers that Teesta Torsa was infamous for being late everyday. We waited and waited and waited infinitely. There was no proper seating area and everything was occupied. We finally settled on some huge cartons that porters had piled up. It was getting really really hot in NJP and sitting there without an indication of when our train will arrive was the most excruciating experience of the entire trip. Finally at 7:30 PM our train arrived. By that tie we were almost dead with exhaustion. We had an early dinner and went to bed. But our woes didn't end there. The train was about to arrive in Sealdah at 6.30 AM. Considering the 3 hour delay it should have reached by 9. But the delay kept piling on. Finally at 1PM we arrived.  18 hours in the train which should have reached in max 14 hours - the most horrendous train journey till date. Apart from the backward journey the entire trip was really a beautiful fairytale for us.
The Teesta

While I was writing this travelogue I tried to document about everything small or big that had happened during the course of this trip. Writing was a medium of reliving those few days and those innumerable moments spent in the lap of virgin nature. It had become a part of life and when I ended each part I myself looked forward to writing the next. I also wanted to write it for my mother who loves to read whatever I write more than anyone in this world. As this travelogue comes to end, I am feeling a bit sad. The kind of sad I felt while leaving the half asleep Asangthang on the last day. In just a few days Sikkim had become a part of our life and it was hard to come to terms that we were going back to the city life, so different from what we had become used to. Someone told us during the trip that the people of Sikkim are a strong believer of right and wrong. Their simplicity have preserved the sanctity of the belief and kept them honest and caring for each other.

Sikkim is really a jewel nestled in the faraway emerald hills. I just hope that the place retains its beauty and charm even years down the line.

 


Sunday, 6 April 2014

Kacha Potoler Patla Macher Jhol ( Pointed Gourd Fish Curry)


After a beautiful winter the summers are finally here full on. And this time it promises to be intense with the mercury touching 39 degree centigrade at the beginning of April. Pune has a very dry summer unlike the humid summer of Mumbai. You feel the heat but it doesn’t leave you drained. The apartment where we are currently staying is in the outskirts of the city for which after sun down the evening breeze coming down from the surrounding hills creates a pleasant weather.

The best part of Summer is waking up to the sweet cooing of the cuckoo in the morning.  I had almost forgotten what it’s like waking up to the song of a cuckoo once I left Kharagpur for attending college a decade ago. The city lifestyle had taken over from there on. The beauty of living among nature, summers bursting with the fiery blossoms of Palash , monsoon bringing in an array of colorful critters and petite white lilies, autumn ringing in the tall Kash Phool hedges , winters with the classical chilly evenings and spring coloring the landscape with golden Radhachuda.

We stayed in a huge B-type  quarter in the IIT campus, specially allocated to professors.  The quarter was bigger than 15000 sq. ft pent houses of today. And we had a lawn like a football ground surrounding our quarter with huge tall trees as boundary lines between two adjacent quarters. Summers would be pretty intense in the campus. And the hollow brick house would heat up quickly in the day. During summer vacations as soon as the sun went down behind the trees me and ma would set up a small table and a few chairs in the red stone paved area before the lawns.  With sun down the temperature would come down and a nice breeze would start. As the evening progressed the air would become heavy with the smell of Madhabilatas.  We settled down in the chairs with some snacks and summer special drinks like lassi, bel er shorbot etc.  I would study in advance for the next class and she would sit engrossed in some book. As the evening set in ma would light the Hurricane lantern or a few candles (Emergency light was still uncommon back then). It was difficult to read and write in that flickering flame but it had become such a natural thing for us that we never felt at
unease. Now-a-days Hurricane Lantern are only used as décor for rustic themed restro-bars, but back then it was a way of life. There would be evenings when it was breeze less, we would then bring out our brand new table fan.   My cats would play around us, sometimes one of them would curl up on our laps or lie down on one corner of the table to enjoy the fan. Dad would come home late from the institute almost by 7:30 PM. He would sometimes join us outside after that. There would be long hours of mother-daughter talks once I was done studying.  I believe those were the evenings over which the two of us bonded as friends.  I remember this one particular evening when I was studying for my entrance exams into the new school. Ma was as usual engrossed in some book. The Hurricane lantern would only light the top of the table. Down under it was all dark. I suddenly felt some things slither over my feet and jumped in alarm. First we thought it was one of my cats but then we heard something rustle over the fallen leaves and saw a snake run away. It gave us quite a fright but snakes and living in the IIT campus was synonymous.  There were snakes everywhere you could imagine. So even though we were scared and took precaution to light up more Hurricane lanterns and set on the ground all around us, we didn’t refrain from enjoying our evening sit-outs.

Summer would also mean endless hours of watching children program on DD1 throughout the morning as there would be no school. Chandrakanta, Potli Baba, Dino Danasur, Duck Tales, Shaktiman, Aladin all these would be studiously devoured. My dad would also buy me many story books to spend my summer. I was a vivid reader and books always made me super happy. Covering the new class books and copies with brown papers and smelling the crisp pages was another of my favorite activity. As ma would cover the books I would meticulously select the fancy label to be put up on each book – a mermaid one for the science book, goofy for geography and so on. Ah the joys of childhood!

Another thing that I remember from the Summer months is the cooing of the cuckoos in the wee hours of the morning. They would start cooing even before the first ray’s of the sun hit the earth. And it would be a powerful orchestra as dozens of them would sing in unison. You see we never needed a rooster to wake us up back then. We were used to it so it didn’t mess up with our sleep. But once my grand pa was visiting us and all this cooing made him wake up. He complained throughout the day about the Cuckoos. The cuckoos of IT were fabled for their early morning choir even till day.

Compared to all those cuckoos here we have only a lone cuckoo singing in the morning and afternoon. Sometimes it is joined by its mate. But these two loners really ring in all the beautiful childhood memories for me. I have never seen them but I have heard them every single day.  I have a lot of pigeon friend though for whom I keep boiled rice on the terrace every night. By day break they are all polished off.  And with the onset of summer I have made it a practice to keep a bucket of water outside in the patio so that thirsty birds can have a drink anytime. I would urge all my readers to also do the same. Think for the earth, and you will not go unrewarded. As I witness the enormous speed at which the concrete jungles are encroaching the nature I just wish that somewhere some cuckoos are still there to regale the children in the days to come. 

During the summer days you don’t prefer to have spicy and heavy stuffs. The heart craves for soothing light food. The Bengali household would almost discard the usage of onions in their gravies during this time of the year. And you would find all the high water content rich summer vegetables like potol (pointed gourd), kacha pepe (green papaya), jhinge (ridge gourd), kach kola (raw banana),  sojne data (drumsticks), begun(brinjal), kumro (pumpkin) etc made into very light gravy in every household. We usually call such gravies as “patla jhol” or “thin gravy”.  The recipe that I am going to write about today is a soupy gravy of fish and vegetable. It’s ideal for the hot summer afternoons and easy on the stomach too. I used two types of fish for the gravy, you can just use Rohu if you want.

Preparation Time: 10 minutes 

Marination Time: 30 minutes

Cooking Time: 30 minutes

Serves:4


Cuisine: Bengali
Ingredients:



  • Magur (Catfish) - 4 pieces (medium cut)
  • Rohu - 4 pieces (medium cut)
  •  Potato - 2 medium
  • Potol (Pointed Gourd) - 10 
  • Jeera whole (cumin) - 1 tsp
  • Jeera paste - 2 tsp
  • Bay leaf - 2
  • Green chilli - 3 
  • Beaten curd - 3 tsp
  • Charmogoj paste (Dry Melon Seed paste) - 1/2 tsp (optional)*
  • Salt & Sugar - as per taste
  • Turmeric - (for marination & gravy)
  • Mustard oil for frying


  • Procedure:

    1. Clean the fish pieces and rub them with salt and turmeric. Marinate for 30 minutes.
    2.  Heat mustard oil in a deep bottomed pan. When the pungent smell dies down, slide the fish and fry till slightly browned on the edges. For Magur, shallow frying for 5-7 minutes will also do as they don’t need deep frying. Take a tissue paper on a plate and keep the fried fish on it.

    3. Wash the potato and pointed gourd. Peel the skin of the potato and cut into 4 longitudinal pieces. Peel the skin of the pointed gourd and make deep scrapes on the sides all over. Cut them into longitudinal halves.

    4. Fry the potatoes lightly and keep aside

    5. Make 2 tsp Jeera paste.

    6. Beat the curd and keep aside.

    7. Smash the green chillies coarsely with a mortar pestle

    8. Heat oil in a wok. Let it steam. Throw in the bay leaf and whole jeera and let it splutter. Add 3 cups of water (or enough water for a runny gravy)

    9. Add salt, sugar and half a spoon of turmeric – stir into the water.

    10. Add the fried potato, fish and pointed gourd into the water. Cover and cook on high heat till the vegetables are well done and the gravy looks translucent.

    11. Add the beaten curd, jeera paste and smashed green chillies at this point. Fold in. Adjust the water level to maintain the runniness. At this point you can add the charmogoj paste to make the consistency of the gravy slightly thick. I didn’t add though, I prefer my gravy very light.

    12. Cook for 5 minutes till everything is well blended. Switch off the flame and let it sit for 10-15 minutes before serving.


    Serve the fish curry with steamed rice and a lemon wedge. Bon Apetite!




    • I added the beaten curd on high flame only. Some prefer to switch off the heat and then add curd because the heat would curdle it. Depends entirely on the curd. Mine doesn’t curdle even if added at high temperature. Hence to be safe you can switch off the heat and then add the curd if you are unsure.
    • It would be better to make a thick paste of jeera, curd and green chillies together. But I made them separately.
    • The more tender the ridge gourd the better taste of the gravy
    • You can also add a few pieces of ridge gourd into this gravy



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