Sunday, June 28, 2015

monsoons in Goa: Detox at the Grand Hyatt Goa

Om Asato Maa Sad-Gamaya |
Tamaso Maa Jyotir-Gamaya |
Mrtyor-Maa Amrtam Gamaya |
Om Shaantih Shaantih Shaantih ||

The detox program at Grand Hyatt Goa, begins with these auspicious lines which mean, from ignorance lead me to truth, from darkness lead me to light, from death lead me to immortality, let there be peace , peace, peace.

With the United Nations’ acknowledgement of 21 June as international day of Yoga, this ancient art of body and mind Harmony and wellbeing has got the much deserved spotlight. Unlike other forms of exercise, Yoga is considered a ‘practice’ one that must be done regularly, and as a lifestyle change rather than a one-time ‘celebration’.

In keeping with integrating the body, mind and soul for internal and external rejuvenation, Grand hyatt Goa has launched their Detox Mondays. A body and mind cleanse which takes place in their award winning Shamana spa complex.

We begin then with a 45 minute Yoga workshop at 8 in the morning. The yoga instructor explains the various asanas and their importance as we find ourselves in folds and stretches of Suryanamaskara, Pawanmuktasana, marjaryasana, bitilasana, and many more. Each of the asanas, not only help make your muscles supple, and keep your joints and ligaments healthy, but also balance your inner hormones, and work on your plexuses. The beauty of Yoga is that you can begin at any stage of fitness and with practice your movements deepen, and you can hold your stretches for a longer time, but there are asanas for every level of fitness.

We then proceed to pranayama or breathing exercises, key to internal well being in Yoga, followed by a few minutes of meditation to still the mind.

A cleansing drink made of cucumber, beetroot and ginger brings the end of this session.
Proceed then to an energising round of aqua aerobics. The Grand Hyatt has an expansive fitness arena complete with indoor swimming pool, gymnasium, indoor Yoga area, lockers, sauna and steam rooms, Jacuzzi- the works.

While similar to land aerobics, in that it focuses on cardiac training, water aerobics has added advantages of water resistance and buoyancy. Although heart rate does not increase as much as in land-based aerobics, the heart is working just as hard and underwater exercise actually pumps more blood to the heart. Exercising in the water is not only aerobic, but also strength-training oriented due to the water resistance. Moving your body through the water creates a resistance that will activate muscle groups.  Older people are more prone to arthritis, osteoporosis, and weak joints; water aerobics is the safest form of exercise for these conditions as it reduces the gravitational pull on the joints.
The water is at a cool 20 degrees and may take some getting used to, but the advantage is that there is no sweating or tiring due to heat.

The water aerobics is followed by a session of steam and sauna to open up the pores for the spa session to follow.

A one hour session of gentle sweeping and gliding massage by the trained masseuse of the shamana spa helps to coax the lymphatic drainage in the body and help move the built up toxins in the tissues of the body. This gentle massage with essential oils helps to reduce the lactic acid build up and increase immunity, thus leading to a holistic improvement in health. The gentle massage also helps in calming the mind, and providing a restful environment for healing.

Move on then to the royal bath in a rose strewn pool with green tea aroma oil essence, while you enjoy a refreshing cup of jasmine tea.

An extensive and intensive detoxification treatment lasting for almost 5 hours helps balance the yin and yang, and readies you to take on the tasks of the week ahead.
This detox program is part of the special monsoon initiatives of the Hotel and is open for guests and visitors. With prior appointment, they welcome guests to enjoy this program even on days other than Monday.

Please make prior appointments and enquiries at the help desk.

Cost: 4500 rupees plus taxes.

monsoons in goa :fondue festival grand hyatt goa

Monsoons really are the winters for most of us living in the tropical regions. Let’s be honest, this may be the coldest it ever gets in the year with lightning and thunder, also just like the snow fall in cooler places, monsoon showers keep us home bound and thus bringing in the need for communal bonhomie. Just like in the winter snowy climes they huddle around a fire place, we huddle around our chai and samosas.

Monsoons then help bring people together. I remember a large part of family bonding happened during the rains, in a large part because of the electricity departments mandatory ‘load shedding’ or power cuts at the first sign of impending rain. With no generator we were forced to huddle in one room, or even with the advent of generators they lit up only a single room. These forced interractions with family members used to lead to rounds of Antakshari, and to horror stories as the night wore on.
These days we have our mobile phones and even in no electricity the internet package helps us connect with the world rather than our home mates.

Grand hyatt has come up with fondue evenings to rekindle our human interractions through communal eating while we bond in the rains.

Fondue is traditionally a swiss tradition which was adopted by the French and the Italians as a way to enjoy the cool wintry evenings as they sat sharing molten wine and cheese from a single cauldron. It’s wonderful to see how foreign traditions are so similar to Indian ones, when you get right down to the basics, fondue is all about sharing, connecting and food.

Ambience: Held at the Capiz Bar, in the Grand Hyatt, this place has a lovely sit out to enjoy the rains, and a glitzy interiors for when it’s to humid outdoors. Live music on Fridays sweetens the mood. Everything here is large and luxurious and speaks of the good life.

Food: Chef Mark a Long who is the executive chef helped us make our selection from the six different cheese fondues on offer. A cauldron of smooth creamy cheesy goodness, comes with an exciting array of assortments. All the assortments are vegetrarian and egg free, some even go the distance to be gluten free. As we couldn’t decide on one we went for two fondues. The ever popular chilli cheese and the more adventurous three cheese. The chilli cheese has jullienes of Jalapeno which are surprisingly very mild, and blend in beautifully with the English cheddar. Have it with the crusty bread assortment and you could actually be biting into your mum’s chilli cheese toasts at home. Go ahead and try it with the green apple, or the ghergins,or tomato , broccoli and carrots and see how it all pairs up. I myself missed some mushrooms. Why you ask? Well mushrooms are quintessential monsoon fungi, and also that scene from ratatouille where he forks in a mushroom, adds cheese and then roasts the whole thing while it madly rains in the opening scene of one of the greatest films on food.

The three cheese fondue is a more robust flavoured fondue, more for those who love their cheese and aren’t afraid to have a cocktail of them. So we had the emmental, cheddar and edam blended into a smooth concoction with garlic and white wine. Not for the faint hearted.

We braved our way into the chocolate fondue, which was like jumping into a river stream in the charlie’s chocolate factory. Imagine a large pot filled with liquid chocolate and an assortment of cakes, brownies, cookies, marshmallows and cream puffs along with seasonal fruits. Now imagine a delicious choice of the fondue itself. Frankly I was at my wits end trying to choose between the oreo and cream fondue, the black forest fondue with cherries and kirsch, or the nutty fondue. We finally settled on a chocolate grand mariner and orange combination.

Satiated with massive overdoses of serotonin and other mood uplifting chemicals that the brain releases on consumption of both cheese and chocolate, we were floating on cloud 9, or atleast some cumulus nimbus part of the monsoon clouds.

If the grey clouds are bringing on the blues then, then the ultimate feel good combination of chocolate and cheese is bound to make you dance in the rains.

fondue festival is a monsoon special available this season at grand hyatt Goa.
Price: 1500 plus taxes for two persons cheese fondue

1200 plus taxes for two persons chocolate fondue

story published in the navhind times 

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

monsoons in Goa: visit to a spice farm

It’s just the beginning of monsoons and perhaps my most favourite part of the year. The welcome breeze, the rain which is still so shy and tentative and not like the incessant downpour of July and August. June perhaps is the lovely time to visit Goa, because you may gamble in a day of great sunshine, for the beach, or a lovely cloudy day for church visits, or walking around the colourful fontainhas, discover heritage homes, or a light drizzle for the long drives.

We decided to head to the dudh sagar waterfalls, which tend to closed own once monsoons are in full swing, and are a major tourist attraction during the summers, if you time it correctly you might just miss the summer holiday ‘kiddie crowd’ and yet manage to see the majestic falls before they turn into a raging river.

Unfortunately for us our timing was off, the few days of ‘heavy rains’ had made rivers out of the two small rivulets on the way to the base of the falls.

One thing with enjoying Goa in the rains, plans are as unpredictable as the weather.

We were left with the options of the temples in and around Ponda: mangeshi, nagueshi, tambdi surla, and then we decided to do something we hadn’t tried before; the spice plantations.

The sahakari spice farm, unlike its name which means “owned by the corporation” is actually a private property owned by the family ‘sahakari’. A sprawling 130 acre farm has opened 2 acres as a spice farm demonstration.

At 400 rupees for entry and lunch it was a good deal.

We were greeted with flower garlands, a tea made of lemon grass and ginger, and snacks.
The walk through the green surroundings, a light shower making it even more lovely since we carried our umbrellas, and we were on a very informative round of the plantations.

Did you know that cinnamon and bay leaves two ever so popular spices are from the same tree? The bark forms the cinnamon great in cakes and coffees, while bay leaves in soups and curries.
Another plant with a versatile spice repertoire was the nutmeg. The fruit our guide explained wpuld be served as a pickle for lunch and which was a really great addition to the meal. The brown covering of the nutmeg seed is mace, a spice I only know of using in Biryani, and the nutmeg seed ofcourse.
Our guide told us various medicinal properties of the plants and also the insider secrets.
Here let me share a few with you

First of when buying cloves, go for the brown variety rather than the more popular black ones, they are the same cardamom except that the brown ones have more of the essential oils and have more medicinal qualities.

Peppers too maybe green, white, red or black peppers, but they are from the same plant and only differ in processing. Drink a concoction of white pepper in milk at night for good memory, and a concoction of black pepper in black tea in the morning for great motions J

cacao fruit for cocoa

bay leaves, the bark of which is cinnamon

yup, a king pineapple!

betel nut palms, the men who climb them are called Tarzans for their jungle prowess.

vanilla orchids require manual pollination and thus vanilla pods are the second most expensive spice after saffron, due to labour intensive cultivation.

this is the real deal, the vanilla in indian essences are synthetic.

Another fun fact I didn’t know was that there are two types of pineapples, the male or the ‘King ‘ and the female or the ‘queen’ . the queen pineapples are more sweet and popular, whereas the more sour king pineapples are ones which have more bromlein and great for weight loss, she said. How do we know which gender is the pineapple, easy, look at the crown of leaves, if they have spikes it’s a queen, if it has smooth leaves then it’s the king.

There were many such fun facts about the vanilla orchids, and the cashew apples, and all spice plants

Lunch was served on pressed bamboo plates and an on the house shot of cashew feni to whet the appetite.
simple home cooked dal rice, fish curry in a coconut curry, chicken xacuti a popular chicken preparation in roasted coconut gravy, a vegetatrian sabji, papaddums made with the inhouse fiery peri peri, and pickle made with the inhouse nutmeg fruit.

A souvenir shop was selling oils and essence, and even packets of spices to take back. What I wish they had were small potted plants of the all spice plant, for my home spice garden. But alas had to settle for some dry spices.

An interesting tour about spices we use so frequently in our cuisine, and yet don't know much about, a lip smacking journey worth every foodie, especially when in the rains. 

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

the childhood friend

As I slathered sinful amounts of Nutella on my toast, I simultaneously marvelled at this wonderful creation of chocolate for breakfast and the fact that soon I would be a mother and would have to give up on such ‘childish indulgences’. Mothers are supposed to be the ‘eat your greens’ and ‘finish all your veggies’ kind of person and what kind of role model would I be if I gave into my ‘basal instincts’ of hazelnut and creamy chocolate ?

We didn’t have Nutella while growing up, sure we had Kelloggs chocos to make up for it, and cold milk and chocos was by far my favourite activity on school mornings. I wondered if my childhood would have been any different if we had had Nutella in it? Hey they say hazelnuts are good for you, they have proteins and stuff, and chocolate has antioxidants, we probably never would have aged. And it’s not like we would have had it EVERYDAY .

I got to thinking of all the great things we did have in our childhood, that, well in hind sight, and maybe even back then we knew were not good for us. Those pepsicola popsicles, the flavoured ice in a handy plastic wrapped stick ; we tore off a bit of the plastic wrap and crunched the ice or just plain sucked at the wrapper . We knew that the water to make those popsicles may not be the ’boiled and filtered’ variety we had in our water bottles, and yet these popsicles were the best 2 rupees that we spent on our way back home on a hot afternoon. Even the plastic wrapper, who knows what sort of chemicals were in it, or where they were stored, we sucked at it with all our might willing the last of the orange flavoured icicle, but who knoiws what sort of back of a dirty lorry the popsicle had been?  It wasn’t like we had washed it or anything.

The candy floss, a major major cause  sugar rush, again who knows what kind of food colourant was used. The ice golas during summer holidays on the chowpatty, all the random, guavas, and cut cucumbers, we consumed on our annual train journey to the grandparents house, straight from the railway platforms of stations we didn’t even know existed.

Were the fruits washed? Was the washing water clean enough ? And how long had they been lying cut on his little portable cart before we joyously shoved money through the railings and grabbed at the guavas before the railway master blew his whistle?  Quick pack some of the vada pav, and a few of those samosas too, do you want chutney with your mirch bhajjis?

 I mean chutney is simply a few ‘maybe unwashed’ green chillies, with ‘raw possibly unwashed ‘ coriander and mint blended to a paste in what will most probably have some sort of gastro causing germs. But we ate right on.

I smiled at my childhood memories, a large part of them linked to glorious uncomplicated summer holidays. Sure we had those little paper soaps which mom diligently tore out of small pamphlet sort of thing. Then we took these paper things to the wash basin on the train and rubbed the paper under the tap water until a soapy substance which smelled like roses satisfied our mom that our hands were clean enough to eat with. Now we have hand rubs, much more convenient. 

And then my mind went to my memories of Maggi. I just stopped. Honestly I didn’t know what to think. There is just so much talk about the lead and the MSG and everyone has an opinion and frankly I didn’t know what to think.

It was like a childhood friend had been caught for fraud and put in prison. Sure we had grown up now, we didn’t see each other so much anymore, but I mean we had been friends. We had spent so many days post school, lounging in front of the telly watching FRIENDS on Tv. My brother and I we had some good memories of the guy growing up, and to see him behind bars, it just seemed odd. Not that I think he is innocent, or that he is guilty. I just don’t know. Would I go to the prison and ask him? maybe not. If he said he was innocent would I believe him? I don’t know, I would like to, but that’s not my job.

All us kids who were friends with him now get this taunt

“ I know he was no good, and still you kids hung out with him. “

“I told you to stay away from him now look where he is, and God knows what he must have done to you kids!”

some even ask “have you been in touch with him, met him recently?”

 I answer diffidently ,” no, not really. Well sometimes, not often though. Just a couple of busy weekday nights for dinner…”

Defensively I add,” he never harmed me, I mean I have all my fingers and toes right, and all my hair too. I became a doctor, didn’t I?”

“you mean to say you became a doctor because of him or inspite of him?” they retort.

“nothing” I add, “ I just … wanted to say he didn’t damage me physically or mentally you know, in all these years that we knew him…”

“that’s what you think! He has been eating away at you all these years. You guys are safe now that he is off the streets, atleast he will not harm your children, and you are trying to defend him!”

I try and explain that I am not defending anyone. I try to add that even though one culprit is off the streets it does not mean my children will be safe in the future, and I also wanted to add that I had had popsicles made of God-only –knows what water, I had eaten many times without washing my hands, I may have picked up my fallen chocolate off the floor and popped it in my mouth before anyone saw.
Did it mean I was Ok with lead, pesticide, heavy metals, and antibiotics in my food substances ? No! I want these off the streets as much as anyone.

I looked down at the jar of Nutella in my hand. As I put it down on the kitchen table, I wondered what sorts of dangers lay within. Sure I knew all that chocolate was not a good idea, sugar rush, diabetes, overweight , all sorts of lifestyle diseases. And let’s face it, anything that tasted that good, was definitely not healthy. But was it dangerous enough to take it off the streets. Would it be the next generations’ ‘childhood friend’ which got dragged away in chains while children grappled with the thought of their ‘friend’ behind bars?

I suddenly realised I had lost my appetite; maybe I would have an apple. Apples have all sorts of pesticides,and even growth hormones, my mind warned me... 

Monday, June 1, 2015

In search of the corn-cob man

It was the summer of 2013 and I was bidding farewell to the temple town of Madurai after finishing my fellowship in Aravind eye hospital. As a farewell gift, my department colleagues gifted me a beautiful hardbound book called ‘multiple facets of my madurai’ by Manohar Devadoss.
Intricate ink on paper sketches of structures, temple statues and still life glimpses of a city steeped in culture,this book is a piece of art in itself.  

Madurai is home to the famous Meenakshi Amman temple, and the book had many illustrations depicting the myriad facets of the temple. One such sketch was of a diety with 25 heads and 50 arms! In the author’s own words “as many heads as a head of corn on the cob’ and I immediately named this idol “the corn cob man”.

The meenakshi temple has a typical south Indian Dravidian style structure with four elaborate gates or gopurams surrounding  the main temple. Now, I had been to the Meenakshi temple many times before, and if anyone asked me to describe it in a sentence I would say “It’s too colourful.”

 Pinks and greens and vibrant blues all vying for your attention. The ceilings have roses and lotuses and scenes from mythological stories in a happy kaleidoscope of colours. Personally I like my temples to be stark or at least monochromatic, they are less distracting in my opinion and allow for a more harmonious aura. Made of white marble or maybe brown sand stone or brick red even, I would take a grey stone temple, but Meenakshi temple with it’s many colours did not bring out the devout in me. Temples as a place for solace and sanctuary demanded a certain aura of peace and calm, but the Meenakshi temple with its free queue, 25 rupee queue , its 100 rupee VIP line and the special prayer for an extra fee along with unending rows of devotees being shepherded to move along while one got a glimpse of the devotee, the time to gaze on the idol directly proportional to the cash payment you have made was too much commercialization for my taste.

Nevertheless, on the last day of my stay in Madurai I made one last trip to Meenakshi temple. Not so much to pray, but to find the elusive statue of the corn cob man. The statue was supposedly situated amongst the three and half centuries old south Gopuram/gate, along with more than 1500 statues. I was determined to see what the author Mr Manohar Devadoss had seen, and I set out with my camera, hoping to use the zoom feature as a telescope of sorts.

A little about the author of the book, before we continue this story.

Mr Manohar Devadoss has an eye condition known as Retinitis pigmentosa (RP), an  untreatable condition in which the sight is slowly lost from outwards to inwards, until only a tunnel of vision is left, and slowly even that is lost leaving the person without sight. It progresses at different rates for different people. Manohar Devadoss was diagnosed with RP in the early 1960’s and since then his vision has progressively deteriorated. What used to take him 2 hours to draw earlier now took him a 100 hours of tedious back bending work. To give you a glimpse of how he achieves this feat, he wears +27 dioptre spectacles specially ordered from Australia (to understand how strong a +27 glass is, take your grandfathers reading glasses which are generally of +2.5 or +3 D strength, put them on, now imagine something ten times stronger than that, and it will give you a rough guide to a +25 to +30 D glasses). He sometimes places an additional +4 D glass for added magnification, or uses a hand held telescope. Since daylight is too strong for him he draws by night with special lights called compact fluorescent lamps, the heat of the lamps necessitating him to wear gloves.

This man, who by all medical and legal definitions falls in the category of “people with impaired vision” saw a statue of a 25 headed man with 50 arms, amongst a colourful confusion of over 1500 other statues, went ahead to draw and depict the same in his book. If that was not reason enough for me to head right over to see it for myself, I don’t know a better reason to visit the holy temple.

the pond of the golden lotus :potramalai kulam 

So on that fateful last day in Madurai, I made my customary rounds of the shiva and meenakshi sanctums within the temple premises, and even as I sat on the steps near the potramalai kulam (the pond of the golden lotus) which have always been my favourite place within the temple to ponder and reflect, or the hall of a thousand pillars another of my favourite places, I couldn’t help but find myself distracted by the need to find the ‘corn cob man’.

I decided to scan the gopurams/pillars as I walked along the outer periphery of the temple premises, my eyes seeking the unusual. Statues of many limbed Gods and Goddesses were stacked one on top of the other, stretching high up into the sky. Brilliant workmanship, exquisite details, and above all a marvel of engineering to hold up all that for more than three and a half centuries.

10 armed ganesha

all things bright and beautiful

I reflected back on the first few days of coming to Madurai. My ‘North Indian’ friends used to ask me in hushed whispers over the phone “Is it true that the tamilians worship Ravana, the 10 headed demon from Ramayana?”  After my first Diwali in Madurai, I could answer that the Tamilians celebrated the return of the Lord Rama to Ayodhya on the auspicious day of Diwali with as much gusto as they celebrate their much loved festival of Pongal. Such was the fanfare during Diwali that I convinced my inquisitive friends that their fears of Ravana worship were unfounded.

But, looking at the multiple statues depicting the many limbed and many headed ‘Gods and Godesses’ I realised that The Dravidians did have a penchant for the multiple. But who was I to judge, as a Bengali, we worshiped a 10 armed Durga as well.

is this my corn cob man?

is this the stairway to heaven?

Every multiple handed statue beckoned me for a closer look, my neck craning upwards, with the dazzling indian summer sun in my eyes, I was all but ready to give up my quest. Not to mention the blatant stares I received from onlookers as a salwar clad girl with vermillion smeared forehead, did not walk head bowed in respect, instead had her gaze pealed upwards.

 And then I found it! He was there! Just like in the drawing. A study in symmetry; 25 heads and 50 arms! I counted them all. I took pictures for posterity with my trusty zoom lens camera.

Mr Manohar was right, it was there, and in all my years of visiting the temple, I had not seen it. Of all the thousands of visitors that flocked in hordes each day to the temple, I wondered how many had seen him. The artist or the architect centuries ago might have thought up of such an idol, then asked the potter to make him one to resemble such imaginings, and then it was commissioned to be put up on the gates of a temple. So much thought and effort had gone into this singular piece of art and it had been discovered by me. I felt like Columbus (well almost). That feeling when you are cleaning out an old drawer, or looking through an old suitcase, and suddenly find something rare and priceless. who made this, and why, and how wonderful that it should be hidden in plain sight.

mahasadashiva aka the corn-cob man

If you ever plan to visit Madurai I would urge you to try the idlis at Murugan idli, have the South Indian non veg thali at Anjapar, taste the inimitable Jigar thanda, try the fusion Dosa burgers, have a meal at any of the roof top restaurants around the meenakshi temple to see it’s resplendent glory by night. But above all I would urge you to go seek out the corn cob man, whose real name is Mahasadashiva, and marvel at the architectural brilliance of over three centuries ago. Travel beyond the obvious, see beyond what the guide books suggest, let the statues speak to you of a bygone era, of timeless beauty, of impossible imaginings, and art that transcends cultural boundaries. 

if you enjoyed reading this post , you could check out more of my posts related to South India 
 the festival of chitirai thiruvizha here, or the typical south Indian sapad here , the fusion dosa burger here, the summer cooler jigar thandas so famous in Madurai here,about verdant and beautiful Munnar here, or a typical malyali sadhya here.