Wednesday, August 31, 2011

India Part 5: Eating Our Way Through Manali

We left our Manali hotel a little after 6pm. The mountain air was already getting cold so we put on extra layers – an America East Track Championships long-sleeve under my kurta, and a purple sweatshirt in addition to Bridget’s t-shirt and harem pants – basically as homeless-looking as we could get. Somehow when in India that’s ok. 

We walked a few minutes down the street to a concrete shack (is that an oxymoron?) advertising  “Chicken/Veg/Mutton Momos.” We peered in. It looked reasonably semi-ok so we pulled up a bench and sat at a table. A teenage Tibetan-looking boy came from behind the curtain in the back that clearly shielded 3x5 foot “kitchen.” He stood next to our table waiting to hear our order – uh, ok, clearly no menus. 

“One veg momo, one chicken momo?” I asked hopefully.
“No chicken,” he replied, confusing me further since he looked confused at my order.   
“Mutton?” he suggested instead. Alright sure.

I just learned from a Traveler’s Tales collection of short stories that Indian “mutton” is actually goat. This makes sense since we had yet to see any sheep on the subcontinent, but goats were a roadside fixture.

A couple minutes later he returned, plopping down plastic bowls of steamy brothy soup, “Veg and mutton.” 

We looked at each other baffled.  Momos are supposed to be steamed dumplings, a Manali specialty, we’d had them for lunch that afternoon. Again we shrug – sometimes it’s easier to just take what’s given.

As we sipped the broths, full of flavor and dotted with oil, an even smaller boy came over and placed two bowls of dumplings in front of us. Aha! The momos! I poured a dollop of “continental  sauce” on both plates, and a spoonful of the firey-hot chili sauce on one (for me, Bridget doesn’t like it). We dug in, enjoying the light meal, and enjoying it even more when our bill came to 40 rupees, just under one dollar. (Not everything is that cheap in India…but if you eat in dubiously sanitary roadside shacks it is!)

“Welp, that was a good pre-dessert snack,” says Bridget. “Cake time?” Yes.

Since arriving in India I'd noticed a multitude of Indian sweet shops. Back in Goa we bought an assortment of Indian sweets. All lived up to the name – they were incredibly sweet.  And almost as common as sweet shops are bakeries – glass cases filled with fluffy-frosted squares of cake. That was our goal for the evening: a cake tour of Manali.

The first place we went had a promising cake case. We sat inside and ordered two milk-teas, one pineapple, and one chocolate cake. As we waited, old American WWF played on the TV. The cakes, alas, were sorely disappointing. They were dry and stale…super bummer. At least the tea was good. It had a tiny bit less sugar than normal Indian tea, probably 4 spoonfuls instead of 5. We dunked our cake in the tea and plotted our next move.

A few shops down we saw another promising locale: The Honey Café. Before going in we stopped to watch a mass of people slowly making their way up the main street carrying “India Against Corruption” posters. 7:30 pm on a weeknight seems like an odd time to have a rally…but I’m as anti-corruption as the next Indian (less corruption might lead to better roads in Himachal Pradash, a welcome improvement for locals and tourists alike), so I snapped a picture in the dim twilight.

The Honey Café lived up to its name. Bridget ordered a chocolate honey ball (imagine a super-dense and big cakeball drizzled with honey and chocolate sauce), and a honey hot chocolate. 

I got apple pie with butterscotch ice cream. Of course it was drizzled in honey – so sweet and so good! The apples were diced (in American pie they’re usually sliced), and I think there may have been some walnuts and raisins mixed in. The crust was super-light and almost cakey textured.

We sat and chatted as the café filled with Indians and a big group of Asian tourists (maybe Tibetan? Maybe Mongolian?). After our sugar-comas subsided we decided to first go for a walk and then evaluate if we could handle more cake. 

The quite main street of the morning and afternoon was gone – “Hello! Madame! You want to buy? It’s very nice!” came at us from all angles. A polite “no thanks” was always our first response, but the particularly persistent salesmen got the more aggressive “No! I don’t want it! Why would I ever need a crappy toy helicopter???"

Bridget bought a traditional hat for her boyfriend so he could look like Abu (from Aladdin) for Halloween. On our way back one of the many shopkeepers invited us in (“No thanks!”), then laughed, “You know how many times I’ve said hello to you today?”
Probably a lot, we’d walked the main street many times…
“Yes, yes, a lot!” he was still laughing. “See you tomorrow! Goodnight!”

We made the wise choice against more cake and instead headed back to our hotel – 400 rupees a night! Hot water! Big bed! That was some accidental good bargaining on our parts. Indian hotel owners don’t like the idea of their potential guests shopping around for a better deal. After we looked at the room and heard the initial price (600r), we said we wanted cheaper but we might be back. “You leave?  No no! How much you want to pay?” Done. The carpet may have been stained, the TV didn’t work, and Lord knows about the sheets…but that’s where we were sleeping!


Catch up with my previous India posts:

Part 1: From the Streets of Bangalore to the Beaches of Goa

Part 2: Old Goa to the Taj Mahal

Part 4: Worst Bus Ride EVER and Paragliding in the Himalayas