Tag Archives: india

Indian Food in Penang

There are three major cuisines here in Penang: Malay, Chinese, and Indian. In addition, there are two of what I consider “fusion” cuisines: Nyonya (Chinese +Malay) and Mamak (Indian + Malay). Of all these, Indian is the definite favorite in the Carlin household. Interestingly, two of the three Indian restaurants we frequent are vegetarian.  But I guess we could claim to be regulars at all of these places.  The servers recognize us and some even remember our kids’ names.

Woodlands is my absolute favorite restaurant in Penang. It’s in Little India and happens to be air conditioned, although that’s not the only reason we find ourselves here on a weekly basis!  It’s not a large place; with only about 15 tables, it is frequently full at popular meal times.  And the shop employs a small army.  On my last visit, I counted no less than nine men in their high-collared brown uniforms, serving tables and hanging out at the cash register.  That doesn’t even include the cooks in the back.  For the patron-to-waiter ratio, service can be a little slow and the staff can be just a little stand-offish.  Oh, but the food.  

I like to go in the evenings, when they are serving all their wonderful bread-like products.  

Ghee onion rava masala dosai at the Woodlands. This reminds me of when we fry up leftover mashed potatoes in a skillet. It’s one of my favorite items at Woodlands.
Chenna batura, anotehr big poofy hollow bread, with a stew for dipping.
Paper dosai at Woodlands Vegetarian Restaurant. You break off pieces of this crispy, thin rolled bread and dip them in the sauces.
Some flavor of vadai from Woodlands. I’ve seen vadai called “Indian donuts” but they really have nothing in common with a donut beyond the shape. I think they could be better described as lentil fritters, as they are made with a batter of ground lentils and deep-fried.

We also frequent another vegetarian restaurant in Little India called Thali NR Sweets.  NR is really THREE! restaurants in one.  The regular food service is the thali featured in their name.  A thali is a plate of small dishes, and a popular Indian lunchtime meal.  You get some rice or some sort of bread product (chapathi, naan) in the center of your tray and little bowls of flavorful dishes around the edges.  Some are more of a curry soup, some are vegetable mixes.  There’s also sometimes a bowl with a yogurt drink and if you’re lucky, one of the bowls has a sweet Indian candy inside.
About that Indian candy… That’s where the “Sweets” part of their name is featured.  When you walk into the restaurant, you have to walk by these big display cases of sweets.  They are wildly, unnaturally colorful and very, very sweet.  And delicious, of course.  Typical ingredients include milk, ghee, coconut, and ground nut pastes (a bit like marzipan, actually).  I find it impossible to resist buying some little thing to try at the end of my meal.

Curiously, Thali NR Sweets leases a bit of space to another food endeavor, Vishnu’s Pizza.  That’s right.  It’s a pizza shop in an Indian restaurant.  I was curious, the first time we ordered.  Would they use a piece of naan in place of the regular pizza dough?  Would the topping be paneer (Indian cottage cheese) instead of mozzarella?  Nah.  It’s just a regular, American-style pizza.  But it’s pretty good and Simon really likes it.  And the guy who works at the Vishnu Pizza stall is really friendly, too.

Thali NR Sweets Cafe.
The Madras thali platter. This whole meal costs about US $2. Isn’t that incredible?!!
Indian sweets. The pink ones on the left are cranberry flavored. The pink ones on the right are coconut. The little apples are made from cashew paste, with a clove for the stem and a pistachio for the leaf.

The final Indian restaurant in our regular rotation is Indian Palace, which scores big points for proximity.  It’s on the first floor of Penang Times Square, the building where we live.  It is not a vegetarian place, so this is where we go for chicken tandoori, lamb, fish, etc.  By comparison, the portions sizes are a bit small and the prices a bit high (for Malaysia) but the food is always very delicious and the convenience of being just steps from our apartment is a dream to tandoori-deprived Minnesotans like us.  We pretty much always start with an order of either chicken tandoori or chicken tikka, and then we are slowly working our way through the menu of other dishes.  It’s quite an extensive menu.  Some of the dishes– spicy chicken vindaloo, creamy mutton korma–are familiar to us from Indian restaurants in America.  But we also enjoy trying new things. On one occasion, Joel ordered a fish plate, in which the cubes of fish were rolled in green herbs and spice, and it was unlike any Indian dish I’ve eaten before.

Indian Palace in Penang Times Square.
Indian Palace in Penang Times Square.
Indian Palace in Penang Times Square.
Interior of Indian Palace.


Goan Beach Holiday

Hey, how’s the weather in Minnesota?


(Sorry.  That was uncalled for.  I’m ashamed of myself.  Really.  I’ve been trying to refrain for days, but I caved.  Don’t hate us.)

Our latest stop in India is in the tiny beach town of Agonda, near the Euro-holiday hotspot of Goa.  We are staying in a “beach hut.”  It’s just a platform, four plywood walls, and a hay-and-tarp roof.  These huts are raised and removed every year around the monsoon season, so they are simple and cheap.  (And yes, there’s an attached bathroom.)  Think of it as beach camping, but with a comfy bed.  🙂

Our beach hut.

Our hut has a view of the ocean.  In fact, the waves are so loud that they wake me up at night.  Oh, life is hard!  But the heat here is oppressive mid-day, so we avoid the beach then.  Instead, Simon naps or plays under the huge, tarped roof that covers several huts.  We sit on our front porch or have a lassi at the open-air restaurant about 25 yards away.

So nice to be able to play under the shade!

Sunrise and sunset are the best times for the beach, and all the tourists come out to walk then.  In the mornings, there’s a lot of beach yoga.  In the evenings, we see some locals fishing.  It’s very laid-back: no big condos or hotels, just  a string of beach huts for about a mile of curved beach, capped with tall hills at either end.

Happy on a morning walk.
The sand is lovely.
Check out the color coordination!
Even at its busiest time, the beach is pretty empty.
Everyone does morning yoga on the beach.
Watching the ships go by.
Do-doo be-do-do...
Do-doo be-do-do…


Rinsing off before going back into the hut.
How long did it take you to notice the cow in this photo?

So here’s something that takes some getting-used-to.  Cows.  On the beach.  Sea cows.  Moo.  Cows are welcome everywhere in India, so that means that you’ll find them wandering through towns, on the highway, in school yards.  I thought I’d grown accustomed to it, but there’s still something jarring about cows on the beach.

IMGP7158 IMGP7156

This cow is Joel’s girlfriend. After we’d been out for a swim, she walked up and started licking the sea salt off his arm. “Blech,” says Simon.

Elephants in the Architecture

I didn’t mean to, really.  It was only on my last day that I realized I had A Thing for Hampi’s elephants.  And the town only has one live elephant, Lakshmi, who lives in the temple and will give you a kiss if you give her 10 rupees.  But no, I was most interested in the elephants in the ruins–the bas reliefs, the carvings, the statues.  Of all the things to photograph, I kept coming back to the elephants.

First up has to be Ganesh.  To be fair, Ganesh is not an elephant; he’s a god with the body of a man and the head of an elephant head.  The “remover of obstacles” and the patron of learning, he is a favorite Hindu persona both for Joel and me.  His was certainly my favorite temple in Hampi; the statue there is known by the locals as Kadelakalu Ganesh or “Peanut Ganesh” because his big belly and head make him look like a peanut.   (A really big peanut.)

Peanut Ganesh of Hampi
Peanut Ganesh of Hampi
Pillar detail from the Kadelakalu Ganesha Temple.
Pillar detail from the Kadelakalu Ganesha Temple.

There were true elephants to be found as well.  One peculiar building was the Mahanavami Dibba, a large elevated platform from which the king would watch military displays. Carved around the edges were scenes from life in ancient Hampi as well as images of distant places as described by Chinese, Portuguese, and Arabic visitors.  A brag book of the city’s wealth and influence, if you will.

Elephants parading along the Mahanavami Dibba.
Elephants parading along the Mahanavami Dibba.
Detail from the Mahabavami Dibba.
Detail from the Mahabavami Dibba.

Rare was the building with no elephants.  Sadly, when the Moghuls invaded, they damaged almost everything in the city.  I never did see an elephant sculpture with its trunk intact.  But they were charming nonetheless!

Simon appreciates the elephants too.
Simon appreciates the elephants too.  This guy was at the gates of the archaeological museum.
The ancient Royal Elephant Stables.  The grass was so lush and verdant!  Hmm...
The ancient Royal Elephant Stables. The grass was so lush and verdant! Hmm…
Found this stubby little guy at Vittala Temple. I think his name should be Stampy.
Trunkless elephant at the Krishna Temple.
There was a group of art students practicing at the Krishna Temple.  I guess I'm not the only one to be smitten by the elephants!
There was a group of art students practicing at the Krishna Temple. I guess I’m not the only one to be smitten by the elephants!

Dungeons sans Dragons

Sites laden with tourists and tourist services are often cheesy, kitschy … awful. In the U.S., we avoid minigolf, Jimmy Buffet bars, and drunken spring breakers.  But here in Hampi, Karnataka, India, the reason for tourists is a 14th century imperial capital that looks like a Dungeons and Dragons fantasy set come to vivid life.


As the Muslim generals of what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan swept down into India, few could resist their cavalry and small mobile artillery.  However, in 1336, two Hindu brothers not only halted the conquest, they even took back territory lost and built a large empire in south India.  Far from an isolated kingdom, the empire hosted diplomats from Thailand, traders from China and Arabia, and engineers from Portugal.  A massive protective army of Hindus, Muslims and Jains lived side by side, with cavalries of Arabian horses and over 1,000 war elephants.  But all good things come to an end, and the city was overrun and destroyed by a new confederation of Muslims a few hundred years after its founding.


Enough history lesson. Susie, Simon and I have wandered around the capital city of this ancient kingdom and have had a fabulous time.  Hampi’s complex may not be the Taj Mahal, but it also has 1/1000th of the tourists of that more famous Indian structure.  The fact that most of the architecture still lies in semi-ruin still makes me anticipate vengeful forgotten deities and evil monsters to spring out from the shadows.  Scott Bur, my fellow fan of fantasy fiction, would LOVE it here.  And yes, I have been humming the Indiana Jones theme tune the ENTIRE time that I have been here.

We have met some of our fellow tourists, and have gotten used to not being the only non-Indian.  Two Australian college students, a Swedish GIS specialist and a Scottish teacher to Chinese students have shared meals with us.  We have met pilgrims from this state and from far away, and while everybody still wants pictures with Simon, it is difficult to draw them into real conversation.  Perhaps we have lost “street cred” as rough travelers of the “real India,” but I don’t care.  Most everyone has been quite nice, whether from Glasgow or Chennai.  And most importantly, they don’t seem to mind Simon’s rambunctiousness.


So, yes, by our hotel in the tiny, kitschy hamlet of Hampi, there are locals trying to beg and borrow (but not steal, so far as we have seen) every rupee from the hippies on holiday.  Just like home, hotels mark up the room price to two or three times the non-holiday rate (at one place, we were charged an exorbitant rate of 1500 rupees per night…nearly $25!!!). Euro-pop plays over scratchy speakers during dinner while twenty-somethings in rasta braids and Marley t-shirts try to look as if their pocket electronics aren’t worth more than the monthly salary of their waiters.  But these are small annoyances compared to the grandeur of sprawling ruins that once held over half a million people, and the living sacred shrines that still inspire the faithful.



Simon in Hampi

Who am I kidding?  You’re all just reading this to get updates on the kid, right?

Wants to be a tuk tuk driver when he grows up.  (A tuk tuk, or autorickshaw, is a 3-wheeled hybrid of a taxi and a golf cart.  They are ubiquitous in India.)
Back seat driver. (Also: seatbelts are for suckers.)
Vittala temple has lots of steps. This makes Simon happy.
Ancient tree at Vittala Temple.
Family portrait at Vittala Temple.
Playing in the grass outside the Royal Elephant Stables.
Walking with Daddy. This picture makes me swoon.
At the Ganesh Restaurant, Simon made friends with the owners’ little girl. She even let him borrow her sweet tricycle.
Given that his favorite foods back home were yogurt, cottage cheese, and banana, it should come as no surprise that Simon loves banana lassis.
Practicing his Godzilla moves.
At Krishna Temple.
Taking some steps at Krishna Temple.
Family photo!
Here is a depiction of a clever little monkey god, beloved byIndians far and wide. Also, a carving of Hanuman.

Hampi: Forgotten Empire

In 1336, the city of Vijyanagar was founded in Central India . It flourished despite the odds, eventually becoming a city of 500,000 occupants. For over 200 years the kings improved upon the city, building temples, monuments, palaces, and concert halls. It was visited by envoys from as far away at Portugal and China. But the Indian Sub-continent was in a state of unrest and the kings were constantly fighting their rivals from the north.  In 1565, the  Deccan sultanates launched a final assault. The king was killed and the city’s residents were forced to flee. Once they captured the city, the Sultanate armies spent a full six months systematically destroying everything within–temples, homes, statues, bazaars. The Vijayanagara Empire faded away and the ruins of the city were all but forgotten forgotten until the 19th century. Since then, a tiny village has cropped up amongst the ruins. Now known as Hampi, it has become an international destination for lovers of archaeology and history.

One of the highlights of Hampi is Virupaksha Temple. One of the last remaining holy sites in Hampi, this temple was largely undisturbed by the invading armies.   Its temple is popular with Hindu pilgrims, who sleep in the open for the night and then bathe in the river the next morning.

Breakfast on a rooftop deck with a 14th century temple in the background. Just a typical Tuesday.


Foreign visitors had an influence on the building style of Vijayanagara. The Krishna Temple has rooftops that resemble pagodas.
Great googly-eyed Krishna!



The queens had a beautiful walled garden known as the Zenana Enclosure. In addition to a palace, the garden is home to the Lotus Mahal. This beautiful building featured pipes through which they pumped cool mud–an ancient form of air-conditioning. It’s good to be queen!
Lotus Mahal.
Joel practices his moves at Vittala Temple.
Scraggly tree at the Vittala Temple.
This stepped Pool was buried under mud and not re-discovered until 1986. How many other Hampi treasures are still hidden underground, I wonder?
The sprawling city of Hampi is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and many government workers are employed to maintain it. Here, workers remove weeds the old-fashioned way.



One day, David led us on a walk to a local village.  With contributions from Hermitage visitors, David’s family has made improvements to this small community of about 20 families.

Slightly outdated map of India at the public school in Theregali village.
At the public school in Theregali village.
At the public school in Theregali village.
David leads us past local homes.
Simon’s welcoming committee. They followed us everywhere in town.
I was fascinated by the brick making process.  Note the man who has dug a hole for himself, since they have no workbench and it's difficult to bend over all day.
I was fascinated by the brick making process. Note the man who has dug a hole for himself, since they have no workbench and it’s difficult to bend over all day.
Yes, it works.
Yes, it works.
Women carry freshly molded bricks to dry in the sun.  The last four rows are fresh from that day.  They can't start molding bricks until 4pm, as the mid-day heat would cause them to crack.
Women carry freshly molded bricks to dry in the sun. The last four rows are fresh from that day. They can’t start molding bricks until 4pm, as the mid-day heat would cause them to crack.
"Why are you stealing wood from the government forest?" David called out, as if scolding a child. "Ah haha, you've caught us again," they cried back with a smile. They need wood for their fires and the forest rules are not enforced.  There is no simple solution.
“Why are you stealing wood from the government forest?” David called out, as if scolding a child.
“Ah haha, you’ve caught us again,” they cried back with a smile.
They need wood for their fires and the forest rules are not enforced. Sometimes, the solution is not simple.
Hay cart.
Hay cart.

Meanwhile, back at the Hermitage…

For Shawn: a little myrmecologist in training.
For Shawn: a little myrmecologist in training.
Sweaty boy.
Sweaty boy.
While Simon was sleeping, Joel and I hiked up Little Bear Hill. This is the view of the Western Ghats, looking west towards the Arabian Sea.
Our last sunrise in the Western Ghats.