21 Jan 2018 18:29 IST

The Indians have landed

No worries on the food front as you Look East on the next holiday

There was a time when it was difficult to find vegetarian food on travels abroad. If you were lucky, you got a plate of ghaas-phoos — leaves of different shapes and colours carefully styled on a plate and garnished with salad oil. Sometimes, flaky rice on the side. Served with a smirk.

Not anymore, because the Indians have landed.

On a recent trip to Vietnam and Cambodia, a motley bunch of slowly-getting-there, almost-there and already-60s on a sabbatical from being responsible professionals and citizens of the world, thought food would be a problem. So they packed their bags with bottomless supplies of eats, including varieties of sweets to celebrate a birthday en route, in flight. However, they discovered to their great gastronomic joy, that food was no issue at all: whether it was Saigon or Hanoi or Siem Reap, they enjoyed each of their meals at a different Indian restaurant and stumbled upon a couple more, too, on their own!

Stoked by a home-made power dinner of podi idlis at Chennai airport, and sustained by a breakfast (or was it lunch?) during the Bangkok layover, the group arrived at the hotel in Saigon (officially, Ho Chi Minh City), in need of bath, lunch, and of course, beds. But it was still a couple of hours to check-in time, so while some of the group tried to mop up the puris and idlis, the rest decided to test out Nataraj, just across the leafy street. And what a surprise! The chef from Kolkata doled out the most satisfying rotis, dal and sabzi.

Ho Chi Minh's legacy

Incidentally, it was a bit of a shock to find that a lot of the present generation back home didn’t know who Ho Chi Minh was. What Mahatma Gandhi is to India is what Uncle Ho is to Vietnam. Although he was Prime Minister and later President of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam, the communist half of the country), he is regarded equally respectfully by people in what was South Vietnam (the democratic half). The reunification of Vietnam happened after Ho Chi Minh’s death, but that was long his dream. Writing about the fall of Saigon (in the south) in 1975 which eventually paved the way for the end of the war and reunification, an Australian journalist wrote: “When the North Vietnamese marched into Saigon yesterday, they were led by a man who wasn’t there.” He had died six years earlier, aged 79.

On one occasion, he was arrested by the Chinese police and held prisoner for a year (1942-43). That’s when he wrote Prison Diary, a series of poems describing his incarceration and sharing his thoughts, all in Chinese so as not to raise suspicion in the minds of his captors. It is required reading in Vietnamese high schools. Sample this:



In the cold autumn night, with neither quilt nor mattress,
I curl myself up for warmth but cannot close my eyes.
Moonlight on the banana palms adds to the chilliness.
I look through the bars: Little Bear has lain down in the skies.



And this:



For each meal only a bowl of rice gruel;
The hungry stomach moans, wails, and curls.
Three yuan of rice is not enough to feed a man well,
When wood sells as dear as cinnamon and rice as pearls.



In Hanoi

 

 

 

Well, the thatha-paati party didn’t go hungry. Dinner was at Saigon Indian Restaurant, pakodas, rotis, dal, sabzi, curd, rice and a birthday cake. We soon realised the pakoda routine was standard operating procedure at most Indian restaurants in Vietnam. After a visit to the deeply disturbing Remnants of War Museum, the massive presidential palace, the Notre Dam replica and the charming post office built by the French and still in use, it was lunch at the stylish Tandoor.

 

Going past street food joints near the Taoist Jade Emperor pagoda aka Tortoise pagoda (huge tortoises reside in the pagoda pond) and Hot Toc (hotdog) places, dinner was at Ganges, the restaurant with the mostest décor: one wall painted red with a five-pointed yellow star (the Vietnamese flag) and a photo of Uncle Ho, and the wall opposite painted in the tricolour, displaying Gandhiji’s photo. Outside, on the street, sat a plate of chicken, some soup, and lit agarbattis. This was food put out for the dead. It seems this is something they do in Vietnam, twice a month, mainly so that the homeless and the hungry can eat. Unless you believe in ghosts.

Hanoi showed off another set of Indian restaurants, even as our tongues watered upon seeing a woman on the street selling persimmons, a fruit that looks like a tomato and tastes like a combination of mango and mangosteen without the seeds. Little India awaited, housed in a tall, narrow building, stuck to another tall, narrow building, stuck to another tall, narrow building. It appears the buildings here are deliberately built this way to get around a vexing tax based on the width of a structure. Although the front is narrow, the buildings run real deep. A full day’s outing later, it’s dinner time once more — at Khazaana Indian Halal Restaurant.

Popular haunts

 

The only time there was no restaurant visit was on the trip to Ha Long Bay, when food was served on the boat as we cruised on the South China Sea – yes, that South China Sea, the one that’s in the news every now and then — basking in the cool breeze and feasting our eyes on the karst formations rising like sculptures from the water. These are limestone deposits that are constantly being eroded by wind and water, creating live art installations set off against sea and sky. The long, tiring, hugely happy day wound down at Namaste Hanoi, a popular haunt that also serves massive dosas and crisp vadais.

The last meal in Hanoi, after viewing the change of guard at Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum was at Indian Cuisine on Hang Be Street, bang in the middle of a maze of shops. Such joy! Such intense exchange of dongs for goods! Such stuffing of bags! Then it was off to Siem Reap where the splendor of Angkor Wat awaited.

In Angkor Wat

 

 

But before visiting Angkor Wat, we walked past carts selling grilled bites of bugs of every shape, including lizards and snakey things, for a jolly good south Indian meal at Royal Indian. Currywalla, The Indian Restaurant, and Namaskar, which has and RK Laxman lookalike Gandhi cooking as part of its signboard, were the other meal stops. The two exceptions to the ‘Great Vietnam and Cambodia Indian Restaurants for Vegetarians’ trip was breakfast at Neary Khmer Angkor Restaurant across from the Angkor Wat complex, for mostly coffee, coffee latte and hot chocolate, and the Neary Khmer restaurant for lunch on our way out of Cambodia. Alongside foot massages and shopping, we made a pit stop for masala chai at Old Delhi Indian Restaurant which, going by the tea, is a must-halt next time. Cambodia and India go back many centuries, so it was not surprising that practically every street sports an Indian restaurant. It was Vietnam that was the surprise, and a yummy treat at that!

The final act, in true foodie style, before checking out of the hotel involved exchanging pastes and podis and readymixes, apart from posing for photographs in various formations, in true tourist style. After that it was all chop-chop, ready to go — or, should we say, chomp-chomp…!

The point though is that we live to eat, right?

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