Many things are said about what it’s like landing in India for the first time. People say it’s an assault on the senses. People warn you about the heart-breaking poverty. And of course there’s the sweltering heat.
Stepping out of Delhi airport as a young backpacker in the 90’s, it was of course all of these things. But first things first: I had to deal with a more unnerving, if revealing, introduction to this incredible, if often unfathomable, country. Collapsing onto the hot sticky seats of the airport bus, an array of alarming signs accosted my tired jet-lagged eyes:
Hmm. This seemed a level of Health & Safety instruction a notch above the usual “Don’t lean on the doors” directive. I shifted uneasily in my seat, mentally see-sawing as to whether I should ungainly attempt to peer underneath. However, my over-sized rucksack wedged between my face and the seat in front put pay to any notion of attempting this manoeuvre. So I just sat there, a little troubled. Through my ensuing travels around this country, I came to realise that this one piece of signage embodied so many indelible aspects of India.
Firstly, and perhaps most overtly, there’s the “actually you might die here” message, most tangible for me every time I caught a coach, whose drivers had a disconcertingly laissez-faire approach to overtaking in the oncoming traffic lane. Ok, so statistically you’re probably going to make it through the average holiday. But it did reflect a place with significantly higher mortality rates, not to mention such varied risks: disease, malnutrition, terrorism, transport accidents, industrial catastrophes, natural disasters, and the more-common-than-you’d-think kite-related injuries. Which is perhaps one reason why religious belief thrives, with so many faiths jostling side by side. And also why the reactive effervescence of life, energy and spirit pervades everywhere you go.
Secondly, there’s the more specific issue of terrorism. England in the 90’s felt relatively safe from terrorism, a decade sandwiched between two very different types of generational threat. Therefore encountering a country where bombs could actually be planted under your bus-seat felt somewhat disconcerting.
If it reflected a turbulent history of aggrieved peoples and the lengths people go to, at least it followed a certain logic for the authorities to warn of the threat. Harder to fathom were other signs that regularly cropped up at train stations to indicate special counters for “Senior citizens, Handicap, Blind, and Freedom fighters”. Excuse me, ‘freedom fighters’?! Not an obvious Protected Characteristic. As if a group of militia, armed to the hilt with Kalashnikovs, garbed in black balaclavas, roused by partisan fervour, and en route to unleashing a blaze of destruction (possibly on the city’s bus network), would first queue up at the discount stall with their ‘Freedom Fighter Railcards’ to get 30% off.
The sign also reflected an intrinsic level of bureaucratic inefficiency. For the authorities to deem that a reward would be the primary psychological driver behind a member of the public raising concern about a bomb is surely misplaced. If one sees a bomb under a bus-seat, you wouldn’t start calculating whether to tell someone on the basis of whether there’s a reward. It’s a
fucking bomb. You’re gonna run down the aisle screaming for your life, and yell out something like: “there’s a bomb on the bus, run for your lives!” That you can then call up and claim some additional payment from the authorities is just an inefficient waste of tax-payers money.
If a sign references explosives, it’s gonna get noticed. If a restaurant name references explosives, well that’s a little risky. Yet that didn’t deter those behind London’s latest Indian eaterie. Had they actually called it ‘Bomb’, it might well have got the PR guys fretting, and the whole venture would have risked, er, nose-diving. So they called it ‘Gunpowder’ instead, which neatly reflects the explosive punch of the food served up inside.
It’s one of several Indian small-plate venues popping up across the capital – Talli Joe’s in Soho and Kricket in Brixton being two others currently tantalising foodies. I’ve heard some lament that such small-plate approach rubs against the Indian tradition of big-plate generosity. In some ways, fair point. But then again, Indian cuisine isn’t exactly unacquainted with the small-plates schtik, with delectable thalis and moreish street-food ubiquitous all over India. And besides, these places aren’t trying to emulate Naniji’s home-style comfort cooking. They’re just serving up some great innovative food in a way that allows you to try more of it. Some people like the small plate thing, others don’t; for me, I don’t care as long as the food’s good.
My small plate for the road is “maas lamb chops”. They come as a pair. I initially enquired whether I could just have the one, mindful I’d greedily ordered huge swathes off the menu despite coming alone (as I usually do when I’m on the road for the blog). The answer was ‘no’, and I was soon glad for I could’ve eaten a dozen, and then perhaps a dozen more.
Perfectly seasoned and spiced. So tender that the meat barely resists the downward pull of gravity as you lift the bone to your mouth, into which it practically melts. Under the charred crust, the lamb yields its customary sweetness, followed by warm savoury spice. Beautifully accompanied by a tangy yoghurt-based chutney, bejewelled in the green of coriander, chilli and mint, and a pleasingly-pink watermelon-pickled radish. These chops were outstanding. Even the terrific Trishna chops I sampled the next day at Taste London didn’t quite match up.
This dish originally hails from Rajasthan, an ancient and arid region particularly renown for its meat dishes, pulses and breads, in part a legacy of the ancient Mughal civilization. It’s where I travelled to once I negotiated the thankfully bomb-free bus-journey from the airport, and then beyond across the plains and plateaus of Northern India. There, one can visit the ancient red sandstone palaces of Fatehpur Sikri, at their most beautiful when bathed pearly-pink with dawn light; or climb through the hilltop mist on the mysterious Jain temple-trail in Junagadh.
From there, I’d then take a 1000-mile train-ride south across this sensuous, vibrant, inspiring, enigmatic, and constantly-intriguing country. But that’s for another time…
If you enjoyed this post, you may like this other piece about a quirky journey, this time a flight to Tonga where I found myself at the controls of a commercial aircraft: ‘Travels in Tonga, Time and Space‘.
Gunpowder (Rasam ke bomb)