An Emoji Evening at Gaggan

Gaggan Menu

The Emoji Menu at Gaggan

I used to watch Masterchef on TV and turn up my nose in disdain when looking at the food that was prepared. Tiny bite sized portions, surrounded by edible flowers and “negative space”.  What the hell is negative space? It’s an empty plate! I wouldn’t pay for that! When I go out for a meal I want a decent sized helping of food. I’m still growing!

But this all changed after I visited a restaurant in Ubud called Locavore and had an eight course degustation menu. The food and the experience blew my mind, and I actually wasn’t hungry afterwards. Eight courses ended up being over twenty once you added in the amuse bouche’s and various other tantalising morsels and after a two hour lunch I left the restaurant stuffed and with a very satisfied smile on my face. No more would I scoff at Master Chef! I had seen the light. In fact, I learned to appreciate the amount of effort that goes into conceptualising and then creating each dish. I loved the way too that dishes would look like one thing but taste of something completely different. It really is an art.

One day while watching Netflix, The Boss and I chanced upon a series called Chef’s Table. One of the episodes was about an Indian Chef, Gaggan Anand, who despite an underprivileged background became a world class Chef and created the eponymous restaurant Gaggan in Bangkok, now ranked number 7 amongst the Top 50 restaurants of the world ( 2017 ). His story was fascinating and inspirational.

Now, The Boss and I never go out to eat Indian food. We can eat it at home, cooking being one of The Boss’s innumerable talents. Most Indian restaurants turn out the same average homogenised dishes which bear very little relation to what one would get in an Indian home. Mainly slight variations on a few North Indian dishes and completely ignoring the incredible diversity that makes up real Indian cuisine.

However the documentary about Gaggan piqued our interest and we thought that maybe, one day, when we were in Bangkok and tired of eating Thai food, we might give his restaurant a try. But it wasn’t high on our list of priorities.

Then, in a masterstroke of marketing genius Gaggan announced he is closing the restaurant to pursue other ventures.

Boom! I went online and booked a table.

The earliest booking I could get was three months later but as time does, those three months passed surprisingly quickly. As the day neared, the excitement and anticipation grew although we sometimes questioned the extravagance of flying to another country just to have a meal. But we hadn’t been to Bangkok for a while and we saw it as a good excuse to take a break from Hong Kong for a few days.

On the day itself we were ready early, having read in online reviews that if you don’t arrive on time your reservation is cancelled. We didn’t know if this was true or not but we weren’t willing to take a chance especially with Bangkok’s notorious traffic. We opted for the BTS SkyTrain as the safest way to get there and then walked the 1km from the station to the restaurant arriving 15mins before our scheduled seating time. Gaggan is located in a converted and renovated old wooden house to the rear of an apartment building and we walked down the driveway from the main road to be greeted at the door by smiling staff who after checking our name led us into the crisp white interior. Surprisingly we weren’t the first to arrive, there were already other diners seated and waiting, and we were taken past them and up the stairs to the first floor all the while being greeted and welcomed by other staff members as we passed.

Once seated a waiter came over and introduced himself. He happened to be from Bombay so The Boss and he established which part of the big city each other was from and where they grew up. Formalities over, the conversation soon moved on to the single sheet of tracing paper that lay on the table in front of us.

“That Sir, Madam, is your menu”

The paper was blank apart from a single column of emojis running from the top to the bottom of the page.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Yes Sir, it’s an emoji menu. You have to guess what each dish is using the emojis”

The Boss and I looked at each other and laughed. This looked like it was going to be a fun evening.

“All the food is finger food. You will have to use your hands for all, bar a couple of courses for which we will supply you with cutlery. But don’t get used to it!”

We both examined the menu more closely. Some of the emojis gave an obvious hint as to what the course contained, a prawn, an aubergine for example, but others were confusing. Fire, a cup of tea, a martini glass, a fire cracker.

While we were puzzling over the menu, another young man in a suit approached our table.

“Good evening I am your sommelier for the evening. Here is the wine list. Please take a look and I will be happy to answer any questions or make any recommendations”

The wine list was huge and I could have spent all evening finding something to drink so I asked for something white by the glass that would go with everything, hoping he wouldn’t bring me a glass of Lassi.

“I will be right back” he said, returning a few minutes later with a bottle of German white which he proceeded to open in front of me, all the while explaining it’s antecedents.  It sounded very impressive and I arranged my face into what I hoped was a suitably knowing expression, trying to give the impression that I understood what he was talking about. I nodded here and there at what I thought were suitable intervals and he poured some into a glass, pausing to allow me to taste it. I took a sip and thought to myself “does anyone ever tell the sommelier that the wine he chose is terrible? What happens if I don’t like it? He just opened a fresh bottle in front of me. Will I still have to pay for it?”

Instead I went for the easy answer, “excellent choice! delicious, Thank you.”

The Boss had other thoughts on her mind. “Are you French?” she asked.

“Yes I am.”

“But you don’t have a French accent.”

“I can do one if you prefer” he replied with a grin.

The Boss wasn’t about to let him off that easily. “Why not?”

“I was brought up in Scotland, lived in Denmark and spent a year touring around India on an Enfield motorbike.”

“Oh really! That’s interesting. What was your favourite part of India?”

“Galouti kebabs in Lucknow.”

We all laughed.

“That wasn’t the answer I expected” admitted The Boss.

“Well, it was my favourite part of India. I consider Awadhi Cuisine to be the most developed and complex cuisine in the country. I love it” and with that he was off to the next table with the rest of the bottle.

The first course promptly arrived, a tiny but beautiful bite sized morsel. The waiter explained what it was and how it matched the first of 25 emojis on the menu.

I don’t want to give anything away and ruin the experience for any readers who decide to visit the restaurant so I wont describe the food in detail. I also don’t want to sound like a pompous food critic and talk about complexity of flavours and textures etc but suffice it to say each dish was a piece of art and an incredible explosion of flavours in the mouth.

Every dish was completely different and we were both amazed as to how Gaggan had thought of them. He has to be some kind of genius. To come up with one of the dishes is clever enough but to think of 25 courses is beyond comprehension.

I will be the first to admit that The Boss and I had an unfair advantage over many of the other diners having lived for a considerable amount of time in India and being able to recognise certain flavours in a dish that bore little or no resemblance to the traditional original dish, but even so, the flavours and combinations were such that anyone would be amazed by the meal.

As each dish arrived we tried to guess what it was from the corresponding emoji on the menu. Sometimes the waiter would tell us, sometimes he would give a hint, and sometimes we would have to guess while he walked away with a grin on his face.

Each dish seemed to build on the anticipation of the next, as they were all so different and incredible it was hard to imagine how he could better it.

The dishes were tiny though, often consumable in one mouthful. The Boss wondered if she would need to go for another meal afterwards as she was convinced she would still be hungry.

After one particularly tasty mutton dish, the Thai waiter asked us how it was. “Delicious” came our unanimous reply.

He grinned and said “If it was bigger it would be perfect.”

We agreed but by the time we had finished the tenth course The Boss admitted she was getting full.

Adding to the enjoyment of the evening was the interaction with the staff. Their service was exceptional and the repartee between them and the guests very amusing. They obviously enjoy their jobs.

After a poultry dish one of the waiters asked us “Did you know what that bird was? No? It was penguin.”

Some of the dishes were prepared at the table by one of the Chefs and this added to the whole theatre like experience.

It wasn’t just us that were enjoying it. The oohs and ahh from the other tables and the facial expressions on our fellow diners indicated that everyone was having a similar experience.

The meal was extra special for me as it was like a journey around India, each dish reminding me of something I had eaten, somewhere I had been, sometimes the flavours very familiar, but sometimes hard to identify because the visual aspect of the dish in front of me didn’t match the picture created in my head by the flavour.

It was a wonderful experience, not just a meal but a form of theatre and if you are planning a trip to Bangkok in the future I highly recommend that you make a booking as soon as possible before Gaggan closes down. You wont regret it!

I am looking forward to his new venture in Japan.

Reservations for Gaggan can be made online at

www.eatatgaggan.com

or by phone:

Ph. (662) 652 1700

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The fabled land of Persia!

Parade Ground Tehran

I’ve just returned from a couple of weeks touring Iran, a country I knew little about and one that I visited with more than a little trepidation.

What a surprise! Contrary to popular western media portrayals of a country filled with angry militants brandishing AK47’s in the air while dancing on a burning US flag, in fact the people are the most welcoming, friendly and hospitable people I have come across for a long time.

I lost count of the number of times we were welcomed and thanked for visiting the country. We were constantly invited to join people for meals and repeatedly told to tell our friends to visit as well and experience the real Iran.

The country is one of contrasts. Where women have to cover their head with the hijab, but have turned it into a glamorous fashion accessory coupled with makeup worthy of a Hollywood red carpet. Where much of the countryside is desert but the cities are veritable Gardens of Eden filled with flowers and fruit trees. Where politicians have historically spouted anti-western rhetoric yet the populace drink Coke and Pepsi and wear Abercrombie & Fitch. Where FB is banned but everyone wants to “friend you”.

The fact that both the Boss, a stunning beauty of South Indian descent, and me, a ruggedly handsome Caucasian 😉 from the Antipodes, were often mistaken for Iranians speaks volumes about the ethnic diversity of the country.

It’s truly a fascinating country and has a long and varied history stretching back thousands of years.
Everywhere you look you see beauty, whether it is the strikingly attractive Iranian people, the stunning and incredibly varied countryside, or the cities themselves. Tehran with it’s backdrop of snowclad mountains, Esfahan with it’s beautifully lit bridges and avenues of Mulberry trees, Shiraz with it’s streets lined with orange trees, Mashhad with miles and miles of rose gardens lining it’s roads.

Art seems to run in the Iranian people’s veins, evident by the public sculptures and artwork you see everywhere, whether it be on the roadside or within public parks. Colorful lights decorate most parks and gardens at nights and people spend time in the cooler hours picnicking in the parks, singing Iranian folk songs, while sipping tea and smoking from the qalyan or hookah.

Despite family members concerns for my safety I felt safer here than in many a European city at night.

A country I would love to revisit and if you haven’t been already, one to put on your bucket list.

Watch this space as I will be posting more about my travels in this fabulous country over the coming weeks

The World’s Politest Policeman!

Tamil Nadu Police

Pondicherry is an Indian Union Territory next to Tamil Nadu.  It enjoys a tax free status and what many people don’t realize is that India has quite a prohibitive tax regime. There are hidden taxes on everything and one of the highest taxes is on alcohol.

Consequently many tourists come to Pondicherry to stock up on booze and then head back across the border into Tamil Nadu.

To make sure they don’t miss out on this lost tax revenue the Tamil Nadu Government has the police set up “Prohibition Checkpoints” on the main roads out of Pondicherry where they flag down vehicles with outstation number plates to check if they are carrying alcohol.

We were staying in Auroville just outside Pondicherry but often went into town for dinner as there are some lovely restaurants in Pondicherry and the ones in Auroville while good, are vegetarian and Tommy needs a good feed on meat every now and then.

Going from Auroville into Pondicherry entails crossing through one of the check points. Going into town is ok but coming out, the cops always want to stop us.

Now normally I am a law abiding citizen but sometimes the keepers of the law are not always law abiding themselves.

Two weeks previously I had been in Mysore, Karnataka, when I was flagged down at a police checkpoint, ostensibly because there had been a lot of vehicle thefts in the town and the police wanted to check my ownership documents. Fair enough, but after satisfying himself that the ownership documents were in order the policeman then proceeded to ask for every other document he could think of to try and catch me out and supplement his income with some “Chai-pani” money ( an expression used when asking for a bribe. Meaning money for tea and water). Fortunately all my documents were up to date, but I was irritated by having to waste 15 mins smiling politely and pretending to be friendly.

With this in mind , when the Tamil Nadu Police waved at me to pull over I pretended I didn’t see them and carried on, thinking that they can’t chase me so they will just wait for the next person.

The next day the same thing happened again, this time a policeman waving his torch at me in the dark. I drove past him and ahead another policeman waved his torch at me more vigorously. I ignored him too and continued merrily on my way, the sound of his shouting receding in the distance.

Turning off the main road and into Auroville, windows down, enjoying the cool evening air, I heard a motorcycle honking at me from behind before pulling out to overtake. I thought nothing of it until I looked out my side window and saw an angry looking policeman riding beside me on his motorbike gesticulating furiously with one hand and shouting at me in Tamil. Pulling in front of me, he stopped, blocking the road, giving me no option this time but to stop as well. Dismounting from his bike he approached my window still shouting angrily in Tamil, the only thing I could understand were the English words, “Police” and “stop”.

Feigning ignorance, and assuming my most innocent expression, I said “I am very sorry but I don’t speak Tamil”, which promptly took the wind out of his sails.

“Why didn’t you stop” he switched to English.

“Stop where?” I asked. “I didn’t see anyone” hoping that he wouldn’t call my bluff and wonder how I could have missed the giant yellow police barriers blocking the road and two policeman shining torches through my windscreen.

“We are staying in Auroville” I explained, hoping that he would think I am a tee-total vegetarian Auroville resident.

He looked inside the vehicle and saw The Boss smiling angelically at him, my 8 year old niece sitting behind, looking like butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth.

His manner softened, anger dissipating rapidly.

“Where have you come from” he asked.

“We just went to the beach to visit a friend and now we are heading back to the guest house in Auroville”

“Ok, ok, I am sorry” he said, then lowering his voice so no-one else in the car could hear, he whispered apologetically, “do you have any liquors?”

“No, no” I assured him, assuming my most horrified expression, and he smiled, apologizing again.

“Very sorry, please go ahead.”

I thanked him and waited for him to climb onto his bike and ride off, however he insisted on moving his bike to the side to allow me to move off first.

I smiled and waved to him, wishing him goodnight.

As I drove off I glanced in my rear view mirror and saw the world’s politest policeman waving and calling out “Sorry sir, thank you”.

A Light At The End of The Tunnel

Mural at Christel House

Mural painted by students at the Christel House School

 

Sometimes life can seem bleak, frustrating, full of unnecessary trials and tribulations. But there is always a light at the end of the tunnel and out of the blue something happens to give you a newfound hope and faith in humanity.

I had the opportunity to experience this the other day.

We paid a visit to a school called Christel House in Bangalore.

Christel House is an organization founded by Christel DeHaan to provide education for poor children around the world. As well as Bangalore, there are schools in Mexico, South Africa and Venezuela

Now there are a lot of schools and orphanages in India providing for the poor but what makes this one stand out is that you can see the incredible results they are getting, not just in terms of the academic performance but also in the transformation of the children.

Christel House

To put things in perspective, consider this. Christel House only accepts children from families who are living below the poverty line. So what The Boss and I would spend on a good meal and a bottle of wine in a fancy restaurant, these families, often 4-5 people, have to live on for a month. Makes you think twice about that evening out, doesn’t it?

The Bangalore school has now been running long enough for the first batch of students to graduate from college and find employment. These children have gone on to be doctors, engineers, software technicians, even pilots. If it wasn’t for a school like Christel House these children would not have been educated and would have seen no way out of the grinding poverty that makes up their lives.

We walked through the school and were struck by how happy and bright the children were. Smiling and laughing they would walk past on their way between classes, greeting us in fluent English, asking our names and how we were.

We popped our heads into a classroom where tiny children sat cross legged on the mat, unable to read or speak anything but Kannada (the local language) 6 months ago when they joined and now reading aloud in English.

The lunch bell sounded and children streamed into the large dining hall, washing their hands, before sitting down to one of the two meals the school provides, thereby ensuring the children get at least two hot meals a day, reducing the incidences of malnutrition and disease.
We joined them for lunch, a delicious meal of rice, vegetables, sambar, and boiled eggs.

Christel House Dining Hall

Lunch completed, we sat for a presentation by senior students, viewing some documentaries they had made and discussing with them how they went about producing the films. Bright, intelligent confident kids, enthusiastic about what they are doing and filled with excitement about the future ahead.

Maybe I would have taken all this for granted if we hadn’t then gone to visit their homes in a nearby slum. What I was to see next filled me with sadness and then anger. Sadness that people in this day and age still live 5 persons to a single room, a room constructed out of cardboard, plastic and salvaged tin sheets. Their belongings in plastic bags hanging from hooks on the wall, no toilets or bathrooms, the kitchen just a fireplace outside. The hut abutting the railway line and soon to be demolished to make way for further development in this rapidly expanding city. Anger at the corrupt and inept government more interested in lining their own pockets than looking after the health and well-being of their citizens. The only time politicians visit these areas is during elections when they come to buy votes with free saris and a bottle of liquor.

Slum dwelling

But then I remember the children in the school and how they, through hard work , dedication and the diligent efforts of the School staff , have transformed themselves and by doing that will change the lives of their families forever. Their view of the world has expanded to encompass experiences they would never have imagined before, living beside the railway line. The money they will earn, enough to rent a proper house with electricity and running water and separate rooms. 3 meals a day. Eventually their children too will be educated and go on to earn a decent living ending the cycle of poverty.

This has made me realize that because of the efforts of a few good people, who put the lives of others before their own, there is still hope and the future is not entirely bleak. Governments may never change, corruption will no doubt continue, but these children are the hope of the future and through their improved lives hopefully the world overall will gradually become a better place.
For more information on this wonderful school and their great work please visit:

Christel House