Junagadh. Not much of a city. But, if you are willing to climb the necessary 10,000 steps to the top of Mount Girnar, just 6 km north of the city, it can be a gateway to heaven. On the rainiest day of the season ,when Gujarat received a whopping 11% of it's annual rainfall, we opted for the "lavish people's" private bus from Bhuj to Junagadh. This is the first time we have taken a private bus, as opposed to the GSRTC spine compressor (state bus) and it is a whole world apart. The big attraction for most people is usually the AC, however those who had to wade through knee deep water to get to the bus in the pouring rain probably didn't enjoy the arctic breeze. The fun part for us was meeting a really nice Gujarati family whose children spoke very good English and were thrilled to finally have a chance to meet tourists. As the 12 year-old boy said with great excitement "I can't believe that I am talking to Foreign!"
Needless to say, the next day was neither bright nor sunny. It was, however, the day we had scheduled to climb the mountain so we pressed on undaunted. Mount Girnar is a popular and normally rather crowded, pilgrimage site, but on that day a big diaphanous cloud was enveloping the mountain and there were very few people in sight. The mountain is a holy site for both Jains and Hindus, and it is recommended that one starts climbing the 10,000 steps leading to the temples at the top at dawn to avoid the searing mid-day sun during the strenuous ascent. Approaching the foot of the mountain, we should have probably been forewarned by the rain poncho rental stall. Or by the fact that it started pouring so hard we needed to run for cover at the nearest chai stall. Or by the fact that we couldn't actually see that there WAS a mountain. After much debate we decided to continue. For a mere 5 rupees each, we rented some pilgrim's staffs and with our rain coats and umbrellas at the ready we felt up to the excursion.
The 10,000 steps are conveniently numbered for the benefit of the weary pilgrim. It might seem like a good idea, but there is nothing more disheartening while you are huffing and puffing up the mountain to realize that are only on step number 750. In the beginning, the numbers come every 50 steps, but towards the end, when you really need the encouragement, they numbering mysteriously stops altogether. It was like being in some sort of medieval legend where one is involved in a soul-searching quest against the elements.
At 1,000 steps there was a band of aggressive monkeys who demanded bananas to let you pass onwards. Luckily, some fellow pilgrims had the golden fruit and we were permitted passage. At about 1500 we stepped into the cloud, and could not see more then 10 meters ahead for the rest of the journey, not until we finally emerged back at the bottom of the mountain, some four hours later. Climbing a series of jagged cliffs, after 5000 steps a group of Jain temples emerged through the clouds. This gave us a good excuse to rest for a bit and explore the milk-white temple complex, looking especially mysterious with their misty halls and bits of cloud blowing in through the open windows. At 6000 steps the gods really seemed to test us, when we walked on a high, narrow, ridge with an abyss on either side. The wind started gusting in earnest and the rain began to blow sideways, soaking us to the skin.
At 7500 we stopped at a little shrine, and were rewarded with hot chai served to us by ash-smeared sadhus who ominously warned us "Make haste and do not tarry at the top, or you will be stranded on the mountain overnight." At 8000 steps the wind was blowing so hard that we decided that this was no longer fun and thought we should turn around. At this point we met three other intrepid pilgrims (jaded young Indian men) who insisted that the end was near and pulled us through the last 2000 steps, by telling us that there were only 700 left. Perhaps they were right, as at that point we had to go down about a 1000 steps before going up again to the final pinnacle. The view must be really gorgeous from the top, but we really couldn't see any of it. At the top, we did a quick darshan and circumambulated a three headed dattatreya while reciting the names of our parents. This god is a great invention, three gods, Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu all in one go. We were deemed worthy, rang a bell twice, and were instructed to proceed to the double gate and go left to receive some prasad, or an offering of food. It is cooked by young sadhus and is given to the pilgrims once they have reached the top. It was a simple meal of chapatis, dal and kichidi, served on the floor on plates made from dried leaves, but after walking the whole day in the rain, or perhaps because of the spiritual context, this was one of the best meals that we had in India.
We were planning on making an early start the next day and leave Junagadh before noon. But as usual in India, we got sidetracked. We planned nothing but a quick visit to the Mahabat Maqbara, a group of 19th century Muslim mausoleums, now doubling as a cricket pitch for the local kids.
On the back to the hotel, Boazcoldrink". Full of curiosity, we followed them in to the house and were promptly invited to sit on the newly installed swing in the living (and only) room. They were busy painting and were obviously very proud of their newly renovated house. Coldrink consumed and seven albums of family photographs later, we were invited to eat something. Or, considering that none of us really had a language in common, that's what we think we were invited to do. After some polite refusal, but in reality, extremely tempted by the thought of finally having a home cooked meal, we finally agreed to eat a little something. To this there were many smiles, much head nodding and the repeated mantra of "chicken biryani, chicken biryani!". Sounded good to us.
We presumed that some one would scoop a bit of biryani out of waiting pot and we would be on our way. But not in India! A boy was presently dispatched to get some chicken, onions started to be peeled, spices started to be ground, and, naturally, Kim was poised with the ever present food notebook to write down the recipe. Two hours, more photo albums and a large plate of gulab jamun and jalebis later, the biryani was served. We can never get used to the local custom of serving the sweets before the meal, because, as your mother has probably warned you, eating sweets before the meal does indeed ruin your appetite. Besides, what can you say to your children? "If you don't finish your jalebis, there will be no chicken biryani for you!".
Writing down a recipe that you have never made before while the watching three women simultaneously cook is not easy. On top of it all, there was a small language barrier, although Kim speaks "Indian Cooking Language" quite well. Here is a short, funny excerpt from her secret notebook. We promise to refine the quantities and process and share it with you on Lime Soda Cooks, our cooking blog.
1. Slice the onions. Chop the remaining 1/4 finer in step 3. Cut potatoes in quarters.
2. Mash the masala ingredients in a mortar and pestle.
3. Put the chicken in a pressure cooker and cook 10 minutes with about 3/4 of the onions. The chicken should be first cut up into little bite sized pieces by holding a knife upside down between your toes while squatting on the floor.
4. In a blender, grind 20 hot chili peppers, water, and maybe some cumin. (At this point the mother-in-law began to sort through about a cup and a half of cumin seeds....maybe for something else? She used about half a cup in step 7).
5. Cook rice in a uncovered pot in an undetermined amount of water.
6. Heat three ladles (yes, ladles) of oil in a really big pot. Add some of the remaining onions (but not all) add the paste from step four.
7. In the mortar and pestle (with what looks like about 1/4 of the former masala) grind 1/4 cup cumin. Pound lightly and add 3/4 cup water (Where did the rest of the original masala go....possibly in chicken? Or maybe in onions?)
6 Continued. Mother-in-law looks at daughter-in-law's potatoes and raises eyebrows. Cuts them all in half again. Then adds them and coriander and mint that were floating in the same water to the large pot with the onion. The water seems to have been added too. Break a cinnamon stick and throw it in with 3 cardamoms. Add the chicken mixture. Break in another cinnamon stick for good measure.
8. Cancel step 5, it was something else cooking in that pot. Take 4 drinking glasses of rice, wash it and add it to the big pot. Add 2-3 generous handfuls (not kidding) of salt. Put a plate on top. Cook.
9.Cut a tomato into chunks. Add it to the remaining onion (this did not become part of the biryani but became a salad later).
10.Fry some other onions until brown.
11.Try to figure out where the ginger went in?
Barfi: We saw this lovely bangle tree on our pilgrimage and decided to tie a bangle on to it in the hopes that some wonderful thing might happen to us. We have no idea what bangle trees are normally intended for, and hope that we have not incurred some sort of mixed blessing like "May you have 13 sons in the next two years". We welcome guesses from our loyal readers and will be offering prizes for the most entertaining ones.