The travel issue: Eat, Pray, Love

  • Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Jun 05, 2016 11:40 IST
People enjoy a meal at a restaurant outside the provincial government building in Bruges, Belgium (Getty Images)

Girija Duggal gets three award-winning chefs in Flanders, Belgium, to prepare zero-meat meals for the discerning Indian foodie

As an avid traveller and self-professed foodie, the joy of discovering new lands is very often marred by the banality of culinary options available to a vegetarian like me.

Sure, there is always bread and cheese to fall back on when you are bored of pastas, risottos and green leaves masquerading as salad, but what about gourmet options that aren’t limited to pricier and prettier versions of the above-mentioned dishes?

So imagine my surprise when a visit to Belgium’s picturesque Flanders left me not just happily sated, but also with a new perspective on high-end vegetarian dining.

Flanders has been the epicentre of a culinary revolution in recent years, with a host of intrepid chefs experimenting with ingredients, techniques and flavours. In the process, they have carved out a new identity for Flemish cuisine and collected over a hundred Michelin stars.

Three years ago, I found myself in the tiny Flemish town of Bruges, dispatched by my then-editor on a Michelin-star-hopping culinary quest. Bruges is the fine dining capital of Belgium, rivalling Paris and London in the number of Michelin stars per capita. Two of Belgium’s three-starred establishments, Hertog Jan and the soon-to-close De Karmeliet, are located here, apart from other celebrated restaurants like De Jonkman and the single-starred Auberge De Herborist.

This latter place, whose name literally translates to Herbalist’s Inn, was my first port of call. Here chef Alex Hanbuckers offers a fresh daily menu, serving dishes that the Michelin guide has described as ‘fresh, intelligent and beautifully enhancing the quality of the fine produce’.

Cannelloni of cucumber, radish and artichoke at Auberge De Herborist (Girija Duggal)

My meal began with an amuse-bouche of cannelloni of cucumber, radish and artichoke served with pickled vegetables and potato crisps — a delicious combination of sour and sweet, crunchiness and creaminess — and a salty quinoa salad topped with a creamy cucumber mousse. The three-part main course was a thin disc of cold tomato pâté topped with fried onion rings, spring onion, greens and lightly spiced rice poppadams, followed by A Walk in the Chef’s Garden, a visually-powerful treat prepared with leeks, aubergine, tomato, micro greens, crisp slices of blue potato and piquant citrus foam, topped with a drizzle of fine French castelas olive oil. The final tour de force was a wild-mushroom risotto with feta and a burnt-carrot puree, drizzled with a vegetable stock and soy sauce. It was a risotto unlike any I’d tasted.

Next, I made my way to Antwerp and ‘t Zilte, a contemporary two-starred restaurant. The menu card read like a grocery list, with dishes identified only by their core ingredient — feta, chicory, potato, citrus or pear, for instance, followed by names of three other ingredients in each dish. The apparent simplicity of the dishes masked a sophisticated array of techniques and ingredients. As chef Viki Geunes told me later, “It should look simple so people don’t have to think how to eat it.”

Potato, the star of the ‘t Zilte menu, serves the humble vegetable four ways (Girija Duggal)

The amuse-bouche was a green-bean jelly served on a bed of yoghurt and topped with crunchy mustard seeds, followed by a beautifully presented ring of creamed lettuce dressed in micro herbs and goat’s-milk cream, with grapefruit strands on the side to offer a bitter contrast. The spring salad was a refined mix of mildly pickled and still-crunchy young fennel, eggplant, baby carrot, radish, turnip and cabbage, served with an eggplant cream, pesto and a black olive dressing. But the star was a dish called Potato, which served the humble vegetable four ways—fried discs, crisp rolled-up strips, mash and deep-fried crackers. Enoki mushrooms and a puree of black beans offered textural and flavour contrasts. I left ‘t Zilte stuffed and happy.

That same evening, having walked off my lovely lunch, I made my way to the inconspicuously-located Dôme, a one-star establishment with a period dining room capped by a dome. Chef Julien Burlat favours simple, clean flavours and techniques over culinary sleight of hand. I asked him for the carte blanche menu—a wild-card selection of five amuse-bouches and four main courses. The very first starter astounded in its brilliant simplicity — a piquant dip of mashed lentils prepared in sherry vinegar and sprinkled with crunchy fried lentils, served with bread sticks. Main course kicked off with a button-mushroom gnocchi served with goat’s cheese, grated black truffle and wild chicory, followed by bok choy and turnips cooked in orange jus and served with a dressing of soy, lime, lemon and orange juice, an interesting combination of texture and bitter, sweet and citrus notes. Dessert was a surprise on the palate — a sorbet of basmati rice served with a curry meringue and a crunchy pepper wafer.

Three days in Belgium made me forget I was a vegetarian in a foreign land. And though I’d just touched the tip of Flanders’ gustatory pleasures, I left knowing I’d be back.

By Girija Duggal


Parvez Damania retraces the footsteps of the saints on a 790-km walk across Spain, seeking forgiveness and reliving ancient history along the way

Santiago de Compostela, the culmination point of the pilgrimage route. (Parvez Damania )

I wasn’t exactly on a pilgrimage. For me, walking the 276 km concluding stretch of the Camino de Santiago, or Way of Saint James, was more of a salutation to a powerful and hallowed tradition. But because I was treading the path taken by pilgrims to the Cathedral or Compostela de Santiago, held to be the burial site of St James, the brother of Jesus Christ, I suppose that technically, I was on the path of faith too, which made me a peregrino. Just like the true pilgrims I met on the way, including the 73-year-old man who was doing the entire Camino (790km) a year after a triple bypass, the couple in their 70s who were doing it for the sixth time, kids, schoolboys, and even a doughty dog beside his master.

My route began in Astorga, Spain, one October morning. I was with two friends, and planned to walk the entire route with just one concession to myself: shipping my knapsack from one stop to the next.

I had my route mapped out in advance, although I found that yellow arrows are painted prominently along the entire route on streets, trees, posts and buildings, leading right up to the cathedral. I walked for 11 days, covering 38km on my longest day and 24 on my shortest.

I wanted to do this walk for the sake of the walk, in the spirit of the walk. With my backpack off my back, I walked much lighter and free to relish the countryside, hills, forests and towns.

Peregrinos stop at albergues that are graciously and generously maintained for pilgrims. Here you can rest, clean up and get a good night’s sleep. The albergues open in the afternoons and shut in the mornings, just after the last pilgrims set out. If you cheat, you will not just find yourself waiting helplessly outside an albergue, but you will also be denied the precious stamps on the special passports that are issued to pilgrims. Only if you get the correct number of correct stamps on your passport will you be issued your formal certificate, and if it matters to you, like it did to me, you never ever cheat. If you are on the Camino, walk right, walk true and walk to the finish.

Stops at churches are optional, but I stopped at every church that presented itself, attended the Pilgrims’ Mass at a few of them, and soaked myself in a spiritual energy that had as its fountainhead the heart of a great religion. The Camino is elevated by the sheer goodwill all peregrinos express to each other. Wishing everyone ‘Buen Camino’, you can make friends of utter strangers in a moment and greet each other like brethren in the evening, or as you cross paths in the towns. It makes you wonder at the potential of human brotherhood.

A church in Villafranca del Bierzo, where a special mass is held to bless the pilgrims (Parvez Damania )

On the Camino, you stop at the Ferro Cruz, the Iron Cross, surrounded by a mound of stones of all sizes. You carry a stone signifying your sins, drop it at the foot of the Cross and ask for forgiveness. I decided a modest pebble would do for me, and spent a moment in prayer – and another two moments wondering at the huge stones others had left behind.

James, the author of the Book of James in the Bible’s New Testament, was one of the first followers of Jesus Christ and supposedly was the first martyr. He is the patron saint of Spain, and the significance of this pilgrimage to his resting place has inspired millions of people. Over two lakh people completed it in 2015 alone.

Indians are made very welcome: Spaniards hold India in high regard. On the way, I saw gifts left by Spaniards who have visited India at significant stops, including images of Hanuman, Shiva and Parvati, and even an Aum scrawled on a signpost that featured the traditional icon of the Camino, the scallop.

The Cathedral at Santiago is its own reward. The Pilgrims’ Mass enchants with its ritual ceremony, music and the devotion of the priests and pilgrims. If you register early, your country is included in the roster of nations called out at the Mass. It was thrilling to hear ‘India’ called out, and to know that I was bearing the salutations of my country and carrying back home with me the blessing of a journey that was everything I had hoped it would be, and much, much more

By Parvez Damania


10 years and three kids later, actors Samita and Ashish Chowdhry went to the Maldives to rekindle their romance. Shikha Kumar checks out their Instagram moments

“Samita’s a natural poser, so she just tells me what to do,” says Ashish

In a social-media universe, can Twitter help a couple redefine their idea of a holiday? Actor Ashish Chowdhry seems to be a firm believer. Early last month, he stumbled upon a gorgeous picture of a then-unidentified island, which nestled in its midst a gorgeous resort with private villas, pools and more. Tweeting the picture, he asked his followers if they knew where this ‘paradise’ lay. A week later, Ashish and his wife Samita Bangargi were on a seaplane to the picturesque Huvahendhoo island in the Maldives. For the couple, the dream vacation was a second honeymoon. They’ve been married for ten years, and have three kids – son Agastya and twin daughters, Salara and Sammah. They left their kids with Ashish’s parents and took off.

Soon enough, their pics hashtagged #livingitup, #rejuvenation, #beauty started doing the rounds. “It’s a crazy life at home, with the kids, work commitments, and we’re in the middle of shifting houses,” says Samita, as Ashish adds, “I hardly ever take holidays, even when I’m shooting abroad. This holiday was like pressing the restart button.”

The pristine beauty in their pictures is almost overshadowed by the couple’s crackling chemistry and fit physiques. Chowdhry is a known gym rat, but how does Samita keep herself so fit after three kids? “I’m a fan of functional training and crossfit. While I don’t diet, my metabolism isn’t the same as before, so I eat healthy. Ashish’s obsession is inspiring,” she says.

Most of their pictures were clicked by their butler. But despite the lack of professional photography, the chemistry shone through

The couple has been together for nearly two decades, but Samita says that they spar on many issues at times – he’s obsessive about cleanliness while she’s messy; she loves to party while he’s more a family guy. Throughout it all, they’ve found a method to the madness. When Samita lazed on the sundeck, the adventurous husband indulged in jet blading. Together, they snorkelled to the depths of the ocean, discovering coral reefs and colourful marine life. “We are beyond those initial issues of trust and jealousy that plague couples. Now, our fights centre around the kids,” says Ashish. Their secret to a successful relationship has been a combination of mutual sacrifice, compromise, respect and understanding. “Weird as it may sound, I do not believe in ‘love’. Because if that is the only driving emotion, it will fizzle out soon when you live together,” he adds.

By Shikha Kumar

From HT Brunch, June 5, 2016

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