In response to the queries coming from my curious readers, I should talk about a subject dear to my heart. I don't usually go too far out of my way for food experiences when travelling, although sometimes there are special occasions when a particular dish might be famous in a region. Just eating what everyone else eats is enough for me.
One thing I have noticed in Madikeri, which has been a downer for my writing, is that no one seems to want you lingering in their eating house. High turnover is all they're after. If you are not ordering or eating, here is the bill, thanks for coming. Not like my favourite cafe in Mattancherry on the island of Fort Cochin where they would let me order a few things over several hours (and they had breezy water views!). Having said that, over a week I've trained the staff at the Choice Restaurant where I start my day, to give me some space between my two coffees and breakfast. Which gives me just enough time to read a few pages, no more.
But onto meal content. Breakfast for the last week has been a masala dosai. A dosai, for those of you have not been to the Malabar in Crows Nest (or any other Southern Indian restaurant), is a crisp pancake made from a fermented batter. This can be ordered on its own or with filling. The filling is a spicy potato mixture with onions and chilli, and stretches a foot long on your tiffin tray. The tiffin tray's compartments will also contain a masala sauce lumpy with tomato and other yellow vegetable matter, as well as a pale green yoghurty sauce whose spicy constituents defeat me.
This morning I felt like a change, inspired by what I've been seeing other customers eating. Now I'm on first name terms with Ellias the waiter, I ask for a combo meal. One idli, one uddin wada and one rice poori. The latter seems to be the best seller. The idlis here don't look like the sad commercial versions I saw at the airport. They resemble a scoop of mashed potato and have the texture of a dumpling. I wish I could have about 40 of them to spread over my mattress. Delicious when used to soak up the masala sauce. The wada, on the other hand, is a deep fried doughnut with shallots and other spices. But the rice poori! Now I know why I see plate after plate of them coming up the stairs. A closed pocket, crisp one side, a little more bready on the other, it has a gritty texture where you can see whole aniseed pods in the crust. Not very absorbent for the sauce, but hey, scrumMEE. Not exactly weight-watchers' fare, which partly explains why I never lose any weight in this country, despite all the walking.
After each meal you are given a saucer of aniseed pods where you can take a pinch for freshening your breath and cleansing your palette. Very civilised.
As for main meals, I haven't had many yet this trip. Breakfast does me for most of the day and after that I make do with a few snacks, not being a big evening eater. Last night I made an exception, though, as I felt like some meat and so returned to the Choice Restaurant (the other main eating places being veg only). Out of the many offerings, I decided on mutton. There were three sauce variations but the waiter couldn't tell me what the difference was beyond big chunks of meat and smaller chunks. The waiter did try and warn me off the spicier meals, but I gathered they were ultimately all some version of hot, so I went for smaller chunks with a sauce called Sukka. I had a vain hope it might be like a Saag Wala at home, which is spinach. I also ordered the jeera rice, recalling its mixed spices from my previous visit. When the meal arrived, it was enough for two people. The mutton was in a thick rich sauce, and yes, hot as. My tolerance has gone up a lot in recent years and I'm sure my friends who like spicy food would say this was only middling, but after a few mouthfuls my tongue was throbbing painfully and I could feel patches of numbness. I persevered, alternating meat with large spoonfuls of rice and when it really got bad, spoons of the yoghurt raita with cucumber. Despite the minor pain, and the constant nose-blowing, I have to say, it was extremely tasty, and I felt better off for supplementing my diet with some protein. This culinary experience cost four times breakfast: 170 RS (meat 110, rice 60) - less than $3.50.
Apart from the cakes and biscuits I've been snacking on at the local bakeries, there has been one other yummy worth mentioning. There's not much in the way of desserts (or what the English would term 'pudding') here in Madikeri. The main menu items seem to be ice cream and fruit salad, but I did eventually come across a place that did fried banana. Not feeling like ice cream, I asked if I could have the banana with a round of the soft fibrousy bread I could see people eating with their curries. This confused the hell out of the waiter, but I eventually got what I asked for. I rolled the battered banana up in the doughy bread and ate it like a sandwich. Fantastic.
And company? Usually I like to read or make notes while I'm eating, but occasionally opportunities for socialising present themselves. Yesterday, for example, a young couple asked if they could sit with me when they realised their table was in the full glare of the sun. They turned out to be two doctors on their honeymoon. They hailed from Salem (down in Tamil Nadu, inland from the French influenced Puducherry...ah! The pain au chocolats!...but that's another story) where he works in Emergency at Salem Hospital and she is actually a physio. They were busy doing all the touristy things and were on their way to Mysore to see the palace.
This morning though, I find myself the subject of an interrogation from an unlikely quarter. I look up from my book to see a young boy has taken the seat opposite me despite the rest of the place being empty. Soon I realise he has come with the intention of talking, so I put my book down.
'You are a novelist?' he asks, looking at my book, The Weekend Novelist Redrafts the Novel by Robert J. Ray.
Oh what they hell. 'Yes,' I say.
He leans over and looks closer at my book. 'You are Robert J. Ray?'
'No,' I say, laughing. I point to the pages of detailed plot outlines and notes in a plastic sleeve nearby. 'This is my book.'
He peers at the grids of small print. 'It is a story?'
'Yes. Fiction, a novel.'
'No, but I'm doing some other writing about India.' I smile at him. He's a nice boy. Gently curious.
He starts tucking into the dosai he's ordered. 'I have seen you at the Cyber Zone,' he says between mouthfuls.
Ah. And you've tracked me down. 'How old are you?'
Turns out that young Samir is from Virajpet, but is here in Madikeri to learn computing. The Computer Learning Centre is right next door to the Cyber Zone. I’ve given up on getting any reading done this morning and so happily chat with him about Australia and India and the imminent start of the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne; but as soon as he's finished his meal, he gets up, thanks me and says goodbye, leaving me to my own breakfast. It is thanks to Samir that I now know the names of what to order in my breakfast combo, not being able to match the visuals to the menu items myself.
It's times like this that travelling alone can pay off. Another day at breakfast there was another table nearby with two Anglo couples. One of the guys had long dreadlocks and one of the girls was dressed, like a hippy, I guess you'd say. I didn't think people still dressed like that when not travelling in the seventies. Notwithstanding no room at their table, it was still unlikely any Indian would approach them for conversation. They did give off a closed-shop appearance. Whereas I have to consciously try to give off that air when I want to be left alone, usually failing in the face of the average curious Indian determined to be friendly. But this morning it helped me to rice pooris. Tomorrow, let's see.