Sunday 30 June 2013

Cameras for the Dharavi Photography Club

You may remember that in my post about 'Bandra Scences Photographed by a Dharavi Kid' - I made a request for people to send in their old cameras so that the Reality Gives Dharavi photography club could increase their supply of equipment to children wanting to learn the art.  

Well, I had a lovely response - especially through my father-in-law and a lady called Nathalie Quantrill back home in the UK.  Between them, they gathered up nine used cameras which Mr Jules was able to squeeze into his suitcase on the way back from his last business trip to the UK.

Last week, I put them into brightly coloured gift bags and took them along to one of the daily art classes in Dharavi - so that the students could get their first look at the fruits of our efforts. Unfortunately, the monsoon rains chose to strike at that moment, so there were only a few students there - but fortunately one of those students was Suraj, the immensely talented teenager that took all the photos in the original blog, and who prompted the donation of cameras.  I was delighted by this, as I wanted to make sure that he got a particularly fancy Sony camera donated by my father-in-law which would enable him to take his talent to the next level, and ensure that he would have his own camera on hand at all times.

Suraj took this amazing photograph on my Canon Powershot on the Bandra tour.
It impressed a lot of people!
The children were so happy to receive these cameras, there were delighted looks all round - from the youngest to the oldest -  and they couldn't wait to try everything out.  It will make so much difference to their progress, to have access to more equipment.

Here are the pictures from my visit - thanks to Nathalie, my father-in-law and all those who donated through Nathalie - as well as Adina at Reality Gives who arranged my visit to the club.  I will be going back after the rains to check progress at the photography club and post more photos of the cameras being used.  Thanks again all!

Suraj checks out his big Sony camera for the first time

This child may only be 3 or 4 years old, but she knew how to operate this point-and-shoot!

A very happy Suraj

Another picture of this child who amazed me with her ability!

After playing with the more complicated cameras for a while, they decide it's a good idea to read the manual!

Another girl from our Bandra tour - delighted with this new Fujifilm camera

Some art painted on to the wall - by kids from the art club.
The Gift Bags
The generous donations

Wednesday 26 June 2013

The Faded Beauty of Matheran

We had two gaps in the rain during our weekend away, each lasting for about two hours.  In one of those gaps, we walked from our hotel to the car park on the way back home.

These respites from the monsoon weather gave us a small insight into good old days of Matheran, when the hill was filled with handsome British and Parsi bungalows and the place was litter and tourist free.  Hailing from the UK, I am always fascinated by places that are clearly influenced by the British. In Matheran, I imagine elegant Victorian or Edwardian ladies in the latest fashions, escaping the unbearable heat of the city. There would have been parasols, carriage rides, High Tea, parties on the verandah and walks in the country. The men would have smoked cigars together in drawing rooms while the ladies fanned themselves and played cards. Simply delightful!

Unfortunately - as with so many old places in and around Bombay, things have been left to decline and rot.  I was dismayed to see so many of the old bungalows falling into dereliction. Now, these historic buildings merely provide homes to the hundreds of feral monkeys to be found in Matheran. 

A sadly mouldy, rotting bungalow
Whilst the paths were generally well maintained - I was also disheartened to see (that as usual) the main viewpoints were filled with rubbish.  Water bottles, sweet wrappers and meal containers carelessly flung over fences and on to steep inclines that would make it impossible to clean up (if indeed, the desire to clean up existed). 

Come on India, why do you have to do this?  Why can't you respect your beautiful old architecture and open spaces? 

Some photos:

Many of these gateposts to be found in Matheran - a sign of more beautiful times

A fine old bungalow with a big verandah up front - closed up and decaying

Rickshaws resting

Matheran high street -  buildings falling apart in the background

TV repair men on Matheran high street!

Every where we walked - dogs accompanied us!
Pre-rain mist preventing good visibility

Miserable rubbish

This is the view if you were to look up from the rubbish.  So sad to see this trash in the foreground

Beautiful Art Deco detailing

Imagining finer times - partying on that beautiful terrace

The monkeys are happy though - they live in the lap of luxury!

More grandiose but decaying Art Deco gate posts

This one is about to completely tumble over.

Tuesday 25 June 2013

The Verandah in the Forest - Agatha Christie Style

Last weekend Mr Jules and I escaped the city by visiting Matheran - a hill station in the Western Ghats, about two and a half hours drive out of Mumbai.  In India, many hill stations were built by British colonialists as refuges from the oppressive summer heat of the city - most being between 1,000 and 3,000 metres above sea level.  Of course we chose not to visit Matheran when the immense heat of April and May was affecting us - but instead when it was pouring with monsoon rain.  But no matter!

Getting through Vashi and Navi Mumbai to reach the outer limits of the city was easy.  We were soon driving through lush green paddy fields on a road that was relatively well tarmacked (for India). Then there was the steep hill climb up to Matheran itself - a first time experience for our driver who hadn't even been in the countryside before.

When you reach Matheran, you have to leave your car behind and walk the rest of the way to your final destination.  Or take a horse.  Because there was a bit of a hill involved and at least another 60 minutes to get to our hotel - Neemrana's Verandah in the Forest - we opted for the latter.  This is certainly no walk in the park if you are not used to riding.  Thankfully they provide you with steps to get up on to the horse but then you have to clutch on with your thighs and hold onto the saddle with your fingernails as the horse progresses up a long, stony incline.  Coming in both directions are well laden mule trains carrying supplies up and down the hill - you have to hope that their galloping motion doesn't make your horse want to bolt. 

By the way, the reason you can't go all the way by car is because Matheran is an 'eco-sensitive' region where vehicles are not allowed.  So you can at least be sure of very clean air in central Matheran!

The verandah of the Verandah in the Forest
After a butt-clenching journey, we finally arrived at our hotel.  A large 19th century colonial house with a huge verandah (as the name would suggest).  It was dingy and seemingly empty except for one lady sat out front, reading a book.  Eventually someone scuttled out from the back and made us sign in and hand over our passports (even though we'd only come 90kms to get here).  Then a kitchen boy brought out a couple of welcome drinks. We were shown to our room - 'Petit' - with high up windows and a lovely big colonial style bed.  What sun that there had been during our horse ride was already beginning to fade. 

'Petit' - full of colonial charm
As we started to unpack, the rain began to come down in earnest.  Monsoon rains tend to start with a a pitter patter for a few seconds, and then before you know it - an earth drenching downpour is upon you.  We sat on the bed in the failing light, and it was like someone had placed us at the bottom of Niagara Falls - with the water crashing against the corrugated iron of the roof above us.  We wanted to go out for a walk, but after an hour of waiting there was no improvement in the weather.  There was nothing for it - we'd have to have a cup of tea.

Niagara Falls
In actual fact, even though tea and coffee is supplied in the room, afternoon tea is served free of charge at the hotel (consisting of a tea of your choice and a few biscuits).  At first we were alone on the verandah. But as we huddled up with our cups of Earl Grey, a few more people began to emerge from their rooms.  There was the young Intellectual Couple with their laptops (on holiday ??), the Tall Couple (presumably Punjabis), the KD Lang Lookalike with her mother (not her lover as I first thought!), and the Well Balanced Family consisting of mum, dad, son an daughter. 

The light was very dim by now and the electricity weak - the lights were flickering on and off... on and off - sometimes going out altogether. Just like in the movies, when something bad is about to happen. We all looked warily around at each other, trying not to raise our voices to an audible level (also very unusual in India).  

The rain completely failed to abate, so we managed to string out tea for over an hour.  The mosquitos buzzed around our ankles and made a meal out of us. Then it was almost time for our dinner.

Amusingly, we were each told that 'dinner would be served in the dining room at 8.30 on the dot' by one of the hotel staff. I was surprised he wasn't wearing a butler's outfit and carrying a gong.

Long long dining table

We later went through to the colonial style dining room with a long dining table (capable of seating 14 people) at which all us guests would have to sit around. On the table were three large silver candelabra which would provide the only light to eat by.  As we sat down, I could hear the dull sound of thunder in the distance as the rain continued to crash down.  With all the atmosphere of a murder-mystery weekend, I imagined that any one of the party could have been slain in their rooms whilst we sat here - had their screams been masked by the sound of the thunder?  Perhaps we would all be picked off one by one, until someone would eventually clonk me over the head with one of the silver candlesticks.

Deadly Silver Candelabra

Thankfully, all the other guests arrived at dinner unharmed and with all limbs intact.  We were served a set 'Continental Style' four course meal consisting of a rather good garlicky-oniony soup, followed by a crispy pea fritter and a rather strange main course comprising pasta, cheesy potato, chicken in mushroom sauce and a spinachy thing. Fabulously, dessert was an excellent apple crumble with English style custard. 

Dinner was a very muted affair - but nobody left the table and didn't come back,  there were no distant screams or gunshots.  There were no cries from foxes or owls. And I awoke unscathed from my sleep the next morning...of course!

On horseback - stuck in mule traffic
Elegant Sofa

 These chairs are called ...Bombay Fornicators! (Look it up!)

The front of Verandah in the Forest - with its monsoon blinds partially furled.

Very sedate sitting room - there are no TVs at this hotels so bring a book or two.

In my next blog, I will post pictures of Matheran - from when we did eventually get out for a walk!

Sunday 23 June 2013

Royal China Mumbai - Food Fit for an Emperor

Royal China is far from the average Chinese restaurant to be found in Mumbai.  Far, far from average.  For one, the food to be found there is authentic Cantonese cuisine.  Not the usual mish-mash of ‘fusion’ oriental food that is popular in this city.  I really do not like a restaurant that can’t make up its mind. And although there are some set menus available at lunchtime (for 850 Rs + taxes), it’s a la carte all the way in the evenings. There is always a member of staff on hand to guide you through the menu, and you can even look up pictures of all the dishes on an Ipad - if you need help visualizing some of the more unusual items on offer.

We kicked off a Monday night dinner at the restaurant with a selection of delectable dim sum, which are individual parcels of food traditionally served in steamer baskets or small plates. I’ve eaten a fair bit of dim sum in my life – including at our very own Chinatown back home in London.  And I can tell you now – that the dim sum we sampled at Royal China is world class.  

Prawn Dumplings (Har Gau)

To begin with, four dim sum showcasing four different types of cooking techniques were brought out to us: Steamed prawn dumplings (har gau), chicken & prawn sui mai, roast pork puffs and fried prawn cheung fun. The dishes were presented with a flourish and placed on the Lazy Susan in front of us (a revolving inner table that allows each person to conveniently access the dishes).

Chicken & Prawn Sui Mai

When the lids were lifted off the bamboo dim sum baskets, a waft of steam escaped carrying a fragrant hint of what was to come.  As I tried to grapple with the sticky prawn dumpling with my chopsticks, I found the casings to be nicely elastic and the prawns wonderfully plump.  The delicious quartet of open-topped sui mai (a particular favourite of mine) were densely packed with finely minced prawn and pork.

Roast Pork Puffs

Admittedly, I had never had roast pork puffs until now – and since sampling them here at Royal China, I am now a big fan; substantial triangles of baked puff pastry encasing a moist char sui pork filling.  These would make a great snack at any time of the day.

The biggest surprise came in the form of the prawn cheung fun.  Cheung fun are usually long, cannelloni-like filled rolls of steamed rice pasta that are divided into bite size pieces. But these particular ones were unusual in that they had first been deep fried in filo pastry and then rolled in a rice casing and then steamed. So first you sink your teeth into a sticky outer followed by the crispy inner.  Novel! And I reckon this cheung fun must be quite a culinary feat to prepare.

Prawn Cheung Fun
Next on the menu were a couple of deep fried appetizers – Salt & Pepper Squid and Smoked Shredded Chicken.  The latter making a change from the ubiquitous shredded chilli beef and making good ‘picky’ food to chew over whilst mid-conversation.  The squid proved a little too salty for us (although we still ate every last scrap!) - but it was just a good excuse to rehydrate with more white wine.  Speaking of which, you won’t find Sula on the menu either – Royal China serves from a list of handpicked Indian Fratelli and International wines. This evening, I had a light and crisp French Sauvignon Blanc to accompany my meal.

Salt & Pepper Squid

The piece de resistance for any Cantonese restaurant has to be Crispy Aromatic Duck.  Whenever Crispy Aromatic Duck is available, I make a point of having it.  But you don’t often see it on Mumbai menus.  So when they presented it to us at Royal China, I was absolutely delighted.  Again I wasn’t disappointed with the cooking.  The duck was pink with sweet-scented, crispy skin – just as it should be – and when rolled up into the steamed pancakes with the fresh cucumber and spring onion and then topped with plum sauce, made me go into dreamland!  To be honest I could have ended the meal right there and then on that high note.

Crispy Aromatic Duck

But by this point, we were still on the wrong side of the middle point of the meal.  There are still six main course dishes to sample as well as two desserts.  Am I going to make it?

Thankfully there was a nice breather and conversation time in between courses. There is one thing that I can’t stand is having your food brought out quickly and being made to rush.  There’s none of that here – the smartly uniformed staff provide a service that is attentive yet unobtrusive.

Again, the main courses (four dishes served with rice and noodles) didn’t disappoint.  But so much food was brought out, that it covered the every spare inch of the Lazy Susan. We were treated to many of Royal China’s signature dishes; Chicken in Black Bean Sauce; Prawns in Chilli Oil; Lamb with Ginger and Spring Onion; Royal China Exotic Vegetables; Egg Fried Rice and Hong Kong Noodles accompaniments.  The stand out dish for me was the Lamb – the generously chopped ginger adding a zingy and uplifting element to the recipe.  Plus the lamb was of the sheep variety – not mutton. 

The main courses - fluffy egg fried rice in the foreground
The mixed vegetable dish was also very interesting – it contained at least four types of mushrooms including exotic shitake and wood ear – as well as lotus root, tender asparagus, carrots and baby sweetcorn.  The prawns were large and succulent – a main course in their own right and accompanied by the chef’s own chilli oil (available to buy at the cash desk on your way out), and the chicken in black bean sauce definitely stands out amongst its competitors.  What I really appreciated about the cooking at Royal China, is that the sauces cling to the ingredients – you won’t find anything drowning in bright red gloop and the food is never over-gravied. The accompaniments were excellent – fluffy and non-greasy egg fried rice and non-gloopy noodles.  Just as I like them!

Lamb with Ginger and Spring Onions
Incidentally, we are told that all the Chefs are brought over from China to cook at this restaurant.  It’s not the usual case of training up Indian chefs and then departing for the homeland – leading to inauthenticity and the bad cooking habits that I have commonly found in other foreign branded restaurants.

Obviously by this time, I am fit to burst.  But there are two more items to sample for dessert.  Toffee Bananas and Chocolate Mud Cake, both served with vanilla icecream.  Now, banana fritters are something I consider myself an expert on. But at the same time, I can take them or leave them.  After all it’s just a banana deep fried in batter and covered in cheap sugary syrup right?  WRONG!  First of all I need a fork to hold down this toffee banana version – and then a spoon to crack through the stiff, toffee caramel.  Inside, the banana was soft and squidgy. The whole thing was simply divine!  We were fighting over the last remaining toffee banana and surprisingly it ended up being the highlight of my meal.  And I don’t even have a particularly sweet tooth.  As for the chocolate mudcake?  It was nice but I preferred the toffee banana.

Superlative Toffee Bananas
Overall, I found the meal to be outstandingly good.  I have eaten at both the much-hyped Hakkasan and Yauatcha but the cooking at Royal China more than matches the standard of those two restaurants (personally, I find it better and more straight-forward).  What’s more, the servings at Royal China are generous – the same certainly cannot be said for Yauatcha!

The restaurant was busy for a Monday night – with a mixture of couples and families and the odd businessman.  The service was excellent and the ambience was cosy yet elegant.  “I’ll be back!”

Royal China
192, Turner Road, Bandra (W), 3rd Rd, Bandra West
022 2642 5533

Average meal for two 2,500 Rs (exc. alcohol, service charges and taxes)

This review was recently written for the Expat Corner of Discovering Mumbai website.