There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Breakfast in Kerala, Lunch in Libya, Dinner in Chengdu

So we have survived Christmas and the New Year. The season of Peace and Goodwill has passed with family harmony intact and without us drinking too much or grossly overeating.

No gross overeating then, but traditional Christmas fare is heavyweight winter food, suitable for these coldest and darkest of days. Do we still need such food as we sit in our overheated houses, occasionally sticking our noses outside to see if we can manage a stroll between showers? Obviously not, but what has ‘need’ got to do with it?

Having consumed my quota of traditional British fare, my mind wandered to other meals in other places. The Independent Saturday travel magazine Pointless Celebrity of the Week is always asked ‘what is your favourite meal abroad?’ If I was asked, I would struggle to limit myself to one, but here is a day’s worth of dining. None of these come under the heading of ‘fine dining’, but we enjoyed them…..

Breakfast: Idlis and chutney, Kerala, India
Bhagwaldas Kandath, known as Bhags, is the sixth generation of his family to reside at Kandath Tharavad, a palatial farmhouse in the village of Thenkarussi in Kerala. After thirteen years in California he returned to take over the family estates after his brother died in a road accident. He is now very much the village squire, but has also opened Kandath Tharavad for homestays.

Lynne at Kandath Tharavad

Bhags is a natural host. On our first morning he took us to a village tea shop for breakfast. Along with his other guests – a pleasant couple from Devon whose names I have forgotten - we set off on what we thought would be a short drive to the local tea shop. Half an hour later we arrived at the Sree Saraswaihy Tea Stall in the outskirts of the city of Palakkad. ‘The idlis here,’ said Bhags, ‘are special’.

Sree Saraswaihy Tea Stall, near Palakkad

I have to admit I had hitherto been unimpressed by idlis, pale, fluffy, utterly tasteless rice flour buns which appear on every south Indian breakfast table.

Two idlis were placed on our banana leaves which, as is usual in downmarket Indian eateries, were serving as plates. Food in such establishments generally circulates in stainless steel buckets, ranging in size from the full ten litre down to those too small for the smallest child on a beach. A mound of pineapple chutney was ladled out from a modest bucket. From a smaller bucket came a little pile of dust. We looked it uncertainly. ‘You make a hole in the middle’ said Bhags, demonstrating with his forefinger. A gleaming oil can appeared and the depression was filled with coconut oil. ‘Then you mix it to a paste.’ Bhags finished his demonstration, wiping his finger on an idli.

Bhags, Lynne and a 'man from Devon' eat Idli and Chutney
 Shree Saraswaihy Tea Stall

Keralan pineapples are the finest in the world, but Keralan pineapple chutney dithers uncertainly between sweet and spicy and is, I feel, a disservice to both pineapples and chutney. The powder chutney, on the other hand (or finger) was magnificent, concentrating the pure flavour of coconut in a way it never quite manages on its own. Served with Indian tea, made with condensed milk and poured from glass to glass from a great height so it arrives sweet and frothy, it even made an idli a thing of joy.

Unadorned idlis are outstandingly dull, but teamed with the right chutney their popularity suddenly became understandable. I took to eating them regularly after that. I have not come across powder chutney since, but when I do I will be first in the queue.

Lunch: Chicken and Chick Peas, Kabaw, Libya
On our way from the Greek and Roman ruins of Libya’s coast to the oasis town of Ghadames we passed through the Jebel Nafusa. ‘Jebel’ is Arabic for ‘hill’ but the Jebel Nafusa is less a range of hills and more a scarp where the land rises from the coastal plane to the desert plateau. When the Libyan War was at stalemate last year, the Berber people of the Jebel Nafusa quietly freed their towns from Gadafi’s control and descended towards Tripoli, decisively tipping the balance.

Massoud, our guide in 2006, was a Berber from the Jebel Nafusa and we called in for lunch with his mother, sister Seham, and brother-in-law Omar at home in Kabaw.

The main road through Kabaw in the Jebel Nafusa

Their house was a new single storey building by a rough road in a small development off the main highway.  A high wall cut off the clean and well-swept courtyard from the scruffy outside world. We were greeted by the family, Massoud's mother telling him quite firmly that he did not visit often enough. We were shown into a large entrance hall. In this land of heat and light, the curtains were drawn and the interior was cool. Then the women disappeared to the kitchen while the men (and Lynne) sat and chatted in a room with cushions around the walls but no other furniture. Massoud’s sister, a primary school teacher, had been given the morning off to cook for ‘important visitors’ -‘Don’t try this at home,’ I thought. The house seemed unnaturally tidy for a family home (we were to meet Omar’s children later) but whether that was contrived for guests or was just the way Omar lived (I could believe it of him) we never discovered.

There was no table; the food was placed on a cloth spread on the floor. The women served us and then retired, Lynne becoming an ‘honorary man’ for the day. This is not the way we would wish it to be, but as guests in someone’s home it would be inappropriate to challenge the way they do things.

The food was excellent. There was salad, noodles with chickpeas covered in a thick tomato sauce, portions of roast chicken with caramelised onion and a sort of quiche with pastry top and bottom, crammed with egg and diced vegetables. As Arab (or more exactly Berber) hosts must Omar and Massoud ensured the finest morsels were heaped high on our plates.

Lynne, Omar and Massoud have lunch

We were not allowed to finish until we were stuffed. Then the dishes were cleared away, tea, apples and cake appeared, and the children (Omar's three plus two cousins) were allowed in. The youngest climbed all over us as small children do while their very serious older brother read to us from his school English text book.

The women appeared again at the end, to say goodbye as we set off for the desert with Massoud, and Omar came along for the ride. It is always a privilege to be invited into someone’s home when you are travelling. Despite the lack of furniture and, more seriously, the regrettable invisibility of the women, family life in Libya is not so different from family life anywhere else. Well brought up, well behaved Libyan children are like well brought up children everywhere.

Since we visited there has, of course, been a revolution. We have lost touch with Massoud, so can only hope that he was all right. No fan of Gadafi, he was an impulsive individual who wore his heart on his sleeve. I can imagine him rushing to join the rebels and getting himself killed through an excess of zeal. I hope that did not happen. Omar was more thoughtful, and with a wife and family and a responsible job in the oil industry he had more of a stake in society. He was a devout Muslim and a decent man, I hope he and his family have come through without mishap.

Dinner: Sichuan Hotpot, Chengdu, China
The people of Sichuan do like a chilli; Sichuanese cuisine is indisputably the hottest in China, and maybe in the world.

Few Chinese restaurants in England do hotpots, but they are ubiquitous in China; Mongolian Hotpot is popular in Beijing and we have encountered hotpot restaurants in places as far apart as Shanghai and Guiyang, but the Sichuan version is, reputedly, the finest of all. The hotpot itself is a bowl placed in the centre of the table over some sort of heating device. It contains stock and various floating items probably including tofu, some random greenery and, in Sichuan, a lifetimes’ supply of chillies. You order your food and cook it yourself in the boiling bowl before you.

Hotpot restaurants were easy to find near our hotel somewhere in the south of Chengdu’s vast urban sprawl. The restaurant we chose, for no good reason, was the ground floor of a tower block with two absent external walls.

Management looked panic stricken as we walked in, a reaction we have met before in places where foreigners are rarely seen. We selected a table and realised the system was, no doubt inadvertently, foreigner friendly. There was no need to choose from a long list we could not read, all we had to do was walk to the counter and select from the many items skewered on wooden sticks.

While we were making our choice, some meat, tofu, mushrooms, bamboo shoots and several things we did not recognise but thought we might try, Management was busy. The chilli laden bowl was removed and replaced by the one containing plain stock, the one they keep out the back for when the eccentrics come to town. ‘No’, we said, though not in any language anyone understood, ‘this is not what we want, we want the one with chillies.’ Everybody in China knows that Europeans cannot stand chillies, so they stood looking confused as we pointed at the bowl in front of us and shook our heads, pointed at the bowls everyone else had and nodded. Convinced they were confronted with lunatics and perhaps worried that we might become dangerous, they relented and brought us a bowl with chillies. ‘You’ll be sorry,’ was the unspoken warning as they fired up the gas.
Sichuan Hotpot - the bowl with the chillies

Compared with other meals we had eaten in Sichuan it was not that hot, but we enjoyed ourselves for an hour or so chasing slippery mushrooms with chopsticks and watching our cubes of tofu slip off their skewers and disintegrate.

By the time we had finished, Management had reluctantly decided we might be alright after all. Calculating the bill was simple, he just counted the number of sticks and applied the appropriate multiplier. He wrote some numbers on a pad and held them up for us to see. 18 Yuan, then worth less than £1.50. We did have a tiny bundle of sticks compared with some of our fellow diners, but we had eaten well. Thinking he might have forgotten that we had a beer each, I pointed at the empty bottles. He nodded, 18 Yuan was the price, take it or leave it. ‘That bill is far too small,’ I roared, ‘take it away and bring me a bigger one.’ Of course I did not, but it is a rare joy to leave a restaurant with that thought running through your mind.


  1. Would you not like to stop off in Istanbul around mid-afternoon to enjoy a cup of tea and a plate of Baklava?

  2. I certainly would, but I was still rather full from lunch.

  3. Never too full for baklava! What's the matter with your separate dessert stomach?