….And Why It’s Often Okay to Go Off-Menu When Travelling
Many years ago we were excitedly choosing all sorts of delicacies at the breakfast buffet at our hotel in Yerevan, Armenia, when another guest glanced at our plates, shrivelled their noses in a very patronising manner and exclaimed, “Ugh! Salad? For breakfast?”
It’s widely considered to be most important meal of the day but so many people seem to be set in their ways when it comes to eating a hearty breakfast. So much that hotels all over the world seem to offer pretty much the same fare. Western visitors are often offered fried food such as bacon, sausage and eggs with bread-based accompaniments and Eastern visitors are usually offered rice or noodle dishes. All these dishes are generally familiar to the tourist and often don’t reflect the traditional breakfasts of the country they are visiting.
Maybe it’s because people don’t feel so adventurous first thing in the morning, and that’s fair enough, but they may be missing out. Thing is, we’re British and can have bacon and eggs any time we like. (Although, to be honest, we haven’t cooked a fry-up for years as it’s quite a lot of effort.) We’d much rather eat a typical breakfast using local ingredients from the country that we are visiting.
It’s quite common for hotels to ask their guests to pre-order breakfast. It makes sense, they know what they need to order in beforehand and this can help minimise food waste. There is usually a form with tick boxes and you can choose from a variety of typical breakfast offerings. But if you do want to eat like a local, we’ve learned that many hotel restaurants are happy to cook you a regional breakfast. We’ve discovered that very often it’s absolutely okay to go off menu.
It all started in Uganda when we breakfasted at a lodge with a local guide. We were eating standard fare but our curiosity was piqued when something entirely different was brought out for him. On asking, we learned that it was a rolex – a chapati with a layer of omelette on top, then rolled into a spiral cylinder, perfect for munching on. So the next day we asked the lodge staff if it would be possible for us to have a rolex for brekkie and they were happy to oblige. It’s great – tasty and filling – a good start to the day.
In Nepal we were given a standard pre-order form to complete (eggs, bacon, sausage, toast…) to pre-order breakfast for the following morning. We politely asked whether it was possible to have a local breakfast instead. We didn’t specify any dish – just asked for local food. They were delighted. The following morning we were served a marsala omelette accompanied by a joyous curry and roti with home-made yoghurt. It was delicious.
Gallo pinto is a typical breakfast in Costa Rica. It’s so popular it is often eaten for lunch and dinner as well. Which is just as well because it tastes great and is also really healthy. It comprises rice and beans and is usually accompanied by a fried egg at breakfast. Other accompaniments to start the morning include sausage, fried potatoes and some salad.
A dosa for breakfast in South India is an absolute joy. This is a pancake traditionally made from rice and dal (lentils) which are ground to form a batter and then fermented. The batter is cooked on a hot plate to form a large pancake and served with chutney – coriander, coconut and tomato are particularly popular.
In Vietnam breakfast usually took a buffet form but often there were chefs on-hand to cook some food to order. We were always offered Pho – a tangle of noodles, freshly cooked and served in a yummy broth, topped with meat and vegetables. You pick up a side plate and add herbs, chilli, limes and other delicious items so that you can create your own personalised taste sensation. The liquid of the broth also ensured that we were thoroughly hydrated for the day ahead.
In Japan, breakfast often comprises grilled fish, vegetables and pickles, maybe with tofu, dumpling and an omelette.
These are accompanied with a bowl of rice, into which you could crack a raw egg mixed with shoyu (soy sauce) – the egg sort of cooks in the heat of the rice – or that famous smelly fermented soybean concoction, natto, maybe with some sliced negi (similar to spring onion). Just grab a slice of nori (dried seaweed), place it over the rice, then using a pincer movement with your chopsticks grab a portion of rice with the nori. Scrumptious. (It’s worth noting that if you are at a breakfast buffet in Japan the eggs on offer may well be raw – be careful when cracking them.)
And, of course, whenever we are staying away from home in the UK, we’ll always have an honest-to-goodness fry-up. Sausage, bacon, egg (usually fried, poached or scrambled), black pudding, mushroom, tomato, beans and sometime a hash brown are the usual components.
We recently discovered that the best possible place for a full English breakfast that we’ve ever eaten is actually in our home town. While many top breakfast establishments boast locally sourced food (which is, of course, delicious), The Gourmet Food Kitchen in Fargo Village, Coventry go one step further and actually cure their own bacon and make their own sausages and black pudding. And that’s just the start: The hash brown (never the most fabulous component of breakfasts) is a home-made bubble and squeak, a glorious blend of fried potato and cabbage. The beans have never seen a tin – they are home-made baked beans in a rich tomato sauce. Chef Tony even makes his own rich, tangy and utterly delicious brown sauce to accompany the feast.
Kerala, the state in South-west India, is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country and it’s easy to understand why. Blessed with gorgeous landscapes, beaches and hill stations, it also has a rich cultural heritage and an amazing food scene, and it is easy to understand why the locals have named it ‘God’s Own Country’.
The backwaters of Kerala are a network of channels, rivers and lagoons that are located just inland from and running parallel to the Arabian Sea. Some of the lakes are connected naturally by rivers or by canals that have been constructed for that purpose. The water is brackish – freshwater meets the salty brine of the sea – and this gives the backwaters a very particular ecosystem.
One of the most pleasurable ways to explore the area is on a houseboat, known locally as a kettuvallam. These enormous boats, some of which can be multi-storey, were originally used to transport rice and spices to the port of Cochin, the regional capital.
The boats have wooden hulls and a thatched roof. ‘Kettu’ means ‘tied’ and ‘vallam’ is a boat. These boats are constructed from long planks of wood tied with knots of coir and then coated in a resin derived from cashew nut kernels. No nails are used at any stage. Although they were originally designed to be cargo ships they have been adapted for tourism and converted to proper houseboats complete with a living area, kitchen, bedrooms and bathrooms. The boats are available for hire for tourists to reside on, or they can be hired for a few hours at a time. It’s worth noting that boat hire isn’t cheap, especially compared with other prices in the region, but if you can afford it, it is definitely an experience worth undertaking.
Many houseboats are booked months in advance during the busy season and will follow a tour through the backwaters. If you aren’t visiting in the high season you might get lucky and find a boat that’s available to hire. We had been travelling down from Thekkady, arriving at Kumarakom at around 1pm. We managed to find a houseboat that was willing to take us on a four hour boat trip on the local lake and this price included lunch. The prices are for the hire of the boat and crew (normally a couple of people) so if you have a larger party the cost per person naturally reduces. You may find that if the boat is still available and hasn’t already found customers, it may be possible to negotiate a price.
The thing that is most striking about the houseboats is how spacious they are.
The living/dining area at the front has room for a dining table and plenty of seating space
The boat is steered from the front.
Then there is a long corridor from which there are large double bedrooms. Each bedroom has its own en-suite bathroom.
As with all areas in South India where food is served, there is a hand-washing area in the corridor.
Finally, the kitchen is located at the rear of the boat. Again, it is very spacious and has plenty of cooking facilities and storage space. Gas is provided by portable cannisters.
Lunch was already in the process of being prepared…
The journey took us from the boat’s mooring along the river and onto the wide Vembanad lake. The boats are motor driven but move at a slow pace which makes for a leisurely experience. It very much reflects the way of life in Kerala.
All along the shoreline it is possible to see fishing contraptions. They are formally known as shore operated lift nets, which doesn’t sound nearly as romantic as they look. These are used at night to catch prawns and other small fish. They are designed on a cantilever which ensures that the net descends into the sea when someone walks along the main beam. The catch is then raised by the use of ropes. Some have lights which are used to attract the fish.
Lunch was typically Keralan – a spicy fish curry with fish fry accompanied by vegetable side dishes and rice. We were asked how spicy we liked our food and we asked for it to be spiced as local people liked it. Like many dishes in Kerala we found that the spices were used for flavour rather than heat. And, of course, it was utterly delicious.
Munnar tea and a banana fritter were served for dessert.
We were visiting at the end of the Monsoon season so some rain was probably inevitable. But even a downpour couldn’t dampen spirits.
A lazy afternoon cruising the beautiful backwaters, with the addition of a delicious lunch, was a most refined way of spending an afternoon.
Amritsar is located in the northwest of India, in the Punjab, close to the border with Pakistan. It’s a bustling city with plenty to see, including a number of temples, markets and interesting museums as well as the Jallianwala Bagh memorial park, a sobering place commemorating the horrific massacre of Indian citizens by British troops in 1919. A taxi or rickshaw ride will take you to the Wagah Border Crossing with Pakistan where hundreds of people from both countries witness the lowering of the flags at dusk… and have done since 1959. With hundreds of people waving flags, playing music and dancing, it is quite an event.
The city of Amritsar was founded in 1577 by Guru Ram Das, the fourth Sikh guru and is the spiritual home of the Sikh religion. It is also the home of the Golden Temple, or Harmandir Sahib. The Golden Temple is primarily the reason for visiting Amristar and it is open 24 hours a day to all.
It is advisable to dress modestly (shoulders and legs should be covered) and you will need to wear a head covering before entering the complex. We always tend pack scarves whenever we travel as they easily scrunch into the luggage and are very useful not only for visiting religious sites but also for sun protection, wrapping things up or any number of purposes. However, coverings are available outside the temple at very low cost if you forget to bring your own. You will need to remove your shoes and walk through a pool before entering the temple in order to wash your feet. Bags and shoes can be kept in the cloak room before entry to the temple. Photography is allowed in the outer parikrama (the walkway surrounding the sarovar – the holy pool) but not inside the temple itself.
The temple complex itself is the very definition of serene, a complete contrast to the bustling streets outside. It is possible to walk right the way around the sarovar, in a clockwise direction. It is believed that the holy water can have healing powers and there are defined areas for bathing, segregated for men and women.
There are two towers, the Ramgarhia Bunga, built in the 18th century designed to be watchtowers to look out for possible military raids on the temple.
The Akal Takht building is located in front of the sanctum. A takht is a seat of power in Sikhism and this is the primary takht and the centre of authority for Khalsa, the collective body of Sikhs across the world. Twice a day the Palki Sahib ceremony takes place. This is a ritual where the Guru Granth Sahib (central religious book) is taken from the Sri Akal Takht to the Golden Temple and returned at the end of the day.
And of course, there’s the remarkable and beautiful inner sanctum itself. This is a two storey building located on a causeway. The ground floor is constructed from marble with floral and animal motifs carved inside and the magnificent golden upper floor, with a dome said to represent an inverted lotus flower, that is apparently gilded with around 100kg of gold.
Inside, recitations from the Adi Granth (the first rendition of the Guru Granth Sahib) sacred scripture of Sikhism and a collection of nearly 6,000 hymns of the Sikh Gurus, are read throughout the day. An entire recitation takes around 48 hours. Pilgrims visit to hear the recitations and to receive blessings. There is usually a long queue to enter the inner sanctum.
One of the amazing things about the complex is the langar, its kitchen, one of the largest, if not the largest, community kitchens in the world. Each day the langar at the Golden Temple provides meals, free of charge, to some 100,000 people. Everyone is welcome, pilgrims and tourists, alike. The food served is simple and healthy – rice, roti (a bread), dal (lentils) and vegetables, along with a sweet dessert. Most of the staff are volunteers.
This video from the temple’s official website shows what an amazing operation the langar is.
We would have been very welcome to have enjoyed a meal at the Golden Temple’s langar but we felt that it was more appropriate that others should have priority. Sikh communities all over the world are well known for providing food on a voluntary basis to people in need, including in our home city.
Kanyakumari is the town located right at the southernmost point of India in the state of Tamil Nadu. It is where the Bay of Bengal – part of which is comprised of Marina Beach waaaaaay up the coast in Chennai, the second longest beach in the world – meets the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean.
It’s a pleasant enough beach resort town and the accommodation is very good value. It is famous for the Thiruvalluvar Statue and Vivekananda Rock Memorial both of which can be found on islands just off the coast. It is possible to visit the Vivekananda Rock Memorial via boats which make regular trips between the harbour and the island. It is the place where Swami Vivekananda, a monk who represented Hinduism and India to the Parliament of World Religions in 1883, achieved enlightenment. He was known for his oratory and literary works, particularly poetry. The Vivekananda Mandapam and the Shripada Mandapam are the main structures on the rock along with a meditation hall.
The boat trips are easy to find – just walk to the harbour and follow the signs. The trips are popular and there is usually a queue but it’s well organised and, like many queues we found ourselves in whilst travelling through South India, we got talking to the local people and other visitors. Life jackets are provided and should be returned at the end of the journey.
On arrival you will need to purchase an entrance ticket then follow the path upwards. You need to remove your shoes before entering the memorial proper. It’s worth noting that the rock can get very hot underfoot if the weather is warm so it’s worth making the trip earlier in the day.
Another thing to note is that photography is prohibited in some parts of the memorial building. It is always important to abide by no-photography rules to show respect, but they are enforced here very strictly and your camera/phone will rapidly be confiscated by eagle-eyed attendants.
There is also a really good view of the Thiruvalluvar Statue on the adjacent island, albeit its back.
The other essential activity for tourists in Kanyakumari is to experience sunrise and sunset looking out over the vast, vast ocean. There are two different locations – one looking east and the other west, for obvious reasons. The sunset spot is about 2 km from the town centre which makes for a pleasant walk along the coastal path. Of course, if you don’t want to walk there will be tuk-tuk drivers aplenty, lurking around town at the time the sun is due to set. If you walk you can’t get lost – just follow the crowds.
There is a designated sunset viewing point – right at the bottom left corner of the map.
The sunset was rather lovely.
Walking back there are all sorts of restaurants and food stalls along the beach front as well as a number of shops where you can buy spices and souvenirs. The town is also famous for the myriad sea shells available to buy and there are loads of stalls selling these too.
The sunrise location is helpfully close to the centre of town just behind the Amman temple on the Kanyakumari Beach and looks east over the Thiruvalluvar Statue and Vivekananda Rock Memorial which are beautifully lit up at night.
The timing for sunrise when we visited was such that we woke up at 4:30am and were a bit groggy, but fortunately didn’t have too far to walk. As with the sunset, follow the crowds. It’s worth getting there early to try and find a good viewing spot as a multitude of people will gather. The atmosphere is lovely and friendly with a sense of anticipation for the day ahead. We were rewarded with a most magnificent sunrise.
And then went back to bed for a couple of hours!
Thali are a wonderful way to enjoy a cheap and filling meal which gives you the opportunity to sample loads of different dishes. Most restaurants across India will offer a thali option and often they are available on an endless top-up basis. Although, to be fair, even though the portion sizes of the individual dishes aren’t enormous, the combination of delicious food and rice is guaranteed to fill you up. While we were travelling through South India unlimited thali meals were available for just a couple of dollars. There will always be a choice of veg or non-veg thali. Both are emphatically delicious.
Thali are all about flavours and textures.
The quintessential thali comprises a flat round plate with a heap of rice in the centre surrounded by small bowls containing a variety of sauces, vegetables and curd. There will be a sweet dish in there too. And, of course, a crispy poppadum on top.
If you’re in South India many restaurants won’t have a knife or fork, but there are usually spoons available. If you’re eating with your fingers, make sure you wash your hands first. Every restaurant has a hand-washing area.
Sometimes the thali will be served on a banana leaf which is a more traditional approach – in a restaurant the waiters will arrive at each table with a vessel and will spoon the various curries onto the leaf. They will return and return – just nod to request another dollop of something delicious.
Separate a portion of rice and pour the sauce from the dish or place some of the vegetables onto it. Mix it in. Then scoop up with the fingers of your right hand, pop it into your mouth and savour.
There is an order to eating the dishes of the thali, although no one will criticise you if you don’t follow it.
You should start with meat (if you are eating non-veg) and vegetables – both sauced and dry form.
Sambar, a mild lentil and vegetable sauce, comes next. It’s a staple throughout the region, often found at breakfast too – and eaten with idly (a savoury rice cake) or vada (like a savoury doughnut).
Rasam is a thin sauce, almost like a soup, made with tamarind to give a sour note, but spiced up with chilli or black pepper. It is always the last of the sauces to be eaten and it too can be mixed with the rice.
Yoghurt (also known as curd) rounds off the savoury part of the meal. It cools the palette in preparation for the dessert (if there is one).
There is often a sweet dish in one of the bowls – maybe something like rice with jaggery or sweet vermicelli in a milk-based sauce. If the dessert is liquid based, it’s okay to drink it directly from the container. Sometimes you may be given a piece of fruit. And the fruit, locally grown of course, is delicious.
We found that whenever we ate in restaurants the locals were very happy to see us. They were also quite keen to see how we coped with eating using our hands (a little bit messy, to be honest) but they were also happy to guide us about the etiquette. There were a number of occasions when we weren’t really sure in which order to eat the – absolutely delicious – dishes, and were on-hand to offer some friendly guidance, particularly when it came to accidentally eating the sweet dish before the savouries had been guzzled with relish!