Here’s How Christmas Eve Dinner Looks All Around The World

HuffPost. December 2022.

While many familiar Christmas traditions originated in Western countries, people from all around the world and from different cultural backgrounds celebrate the holiday with the same spirit of gratitude and togetherness. No matter where, recipes passed on through generations are central to family gatherings. From callaloo to chicken tikka masala, find out what renowned chefs and food influencers around the world are cooking on Christmas Eve.


Martha Ortiz Chapa is the head chef at Tuch de Luna at La Casa de la Playa in Riviera Maya. She was the chef-owner of Dulce Patria, which had been named one of the 50 best restaurants in Latin America and the best restaurant in Mexico City before closing earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic. She has also served as a judge on “Top Chef Mexico,” and in 2020 was named one of the 40 best chefs in the world.

Our December traditions begin with the Posadas (a religious festival held from Dec. 16-24), which lead the way to the grand celebration of Christmas Eve. During this time, Mexicans hang seven-point-star piñatas (the peaks representing a different capital sin, including gluttony) made with contrasting colored tissue paper and filled with pieces of sugar cane, tejocotes (a fruit), orange wedges, peanuts, candies and sugar-coated almonds. We blindfold the guests, who take turns hitting the piñata until someone breaks it, in celebration of the predominance of virtue and abundance.

On Noche Buena (the night that is good)aka Christmas Eve, I elegantly present these crafts to my guests. I usually use a dark tablecloth as a canvas and decorate it with wooden kitchen utensils, such as grinders, spoons and saucepans, surrounded by colorful flowers. I personalize each guest’s place on their plate with a small piñata, which holds inside a traditional sweet or piece of candy and a message of friendship and love, in the hope that they will take it home with them and, when they break it, the abundance of affection, bonds and the celebration of life will grow.

As a proud Mexican, I begin with traditional dishes such as romeritos (tender sprigs of seepweed) with cactus strips, and mole (made with at least 50 ingredients) seasoned with dried shrimp. I serve a salad called Noche Buena, which is prepared with diced jicama, apple, beet, orange wedges and crunchy peanuts. For main, we have pork leg in spicy pulque marinade. I wash it down with my personal favorite, a punch of tejocotes, tamarind, jicama pieces, piloncillo (a raw form of pure cane sugar), guavas and spices and a touch of hard liquor.

Continue reading on HuffPost

How a Kashmiri Tea Warmed My Cup and Soul

Marriott Bonvoy Traveler. Oct 2022

I wake up at 4 a.m. to the sound of an imam chanting the Muslim call to prayer from the loudspeaker of a nearby mosque in Srinagar, India. At this early hour, darkness still envelops the city, the largest in India’s northernmost state of Jammu and Kashmir.

Normally, I am not an early riser, but today I hurry to dress in my salwar kameez and meet my driver, Mohd Shafi, who brings me to the shore of Dal Lake. With its traditional houseboats and floating gardens, Dal plays an integral role in the city’s commerce and culture.

At this early hour, my plan is to visit the town’s floating market, held each day before dawn breaks. A lone boatsman meets us at the lake’s docks and rows his red-carpet-draped shikara, a traditional wooden boat, onto the cool and misty lake. There is no one nearby as far as I can see, but then, with not a single light around us, I can’t really see anything.

Suddenly, from the foggy gray mist, another boatsman emerges with vegetables stacked on his long narrow boat, then another with fresh flowers, and yet another selling tea. It’s as if an entire city has awakened from the peripheries of the calm waters. Slowly, the fog lifts. Beyond the lake, the towering Himalaya mountains appear, and around me, lotus flowers bloom in the wetlands. It is a magical sight.

It’s here that I meet the kahwa shikara, or the floating tea vendor. He enthusiastically rattles in his broken English, “I am selling Kashmiri saffron kahwa — 16 varieties mix!” trying to attract the attention of those who may need a pick-me-up.

While balancing barefoot on his delicate, low-slung boat, he inserts hot coals into a brass kettle, or samovar, and serves small cups of tea to other vendors, mainly fruit, flower and vegetable sellers.

Wholesalers come to this part of the lake long before sunrise mainly to sell the produce they’ve grown along the banks of the lake. Retailers buy their goods, taking them back to be sold at shops and markets once the rest of the world awakens.

Without much delay, Shafi orders two cups of kahwa for us. The tea vendor flawlessly transacts the piping-hot paper cups and rupees across boats without anyone needing to move from their seats.

~ Continue reading on Marriott Bonvoy Traveler

The Year of Indian Cuisine

Khabar Magazine. August 2022.

For the longest time, one of the pet peeves of Indians has been that our cuisine does not get its due credit in the American dining scene. Well, that has changed in 2022, and how!

In June, the Asheville, North Carolina-based Chai Pani (which also has a location in Decatur, Georgia) won the esteemed “Outstanding Restaurant” Award, which is essentially recognition as the best restaurant in the U.S.! Chai Pani edged over a list of highly competitive nationwide restaurants that demonstrated consistent excellence in food, atmosphere, hospitality, and operations while contributing positively to their broader community.

But there is more “music to the ears” for fans of Indian cuisine. Ashok Bajaj of Knightsbridge Restaurant Group (Rasika, Bindaas, Annabelle, and others in Washington, D.C.) was named “Best Restaurateur” for building community, demonstrating creativity in entrepreneurship and integrity in restaurant operations, and making efforts to create a sustainable work culture. Meanwhile Chintan Pandya (Dhamaka, NYC) was declared “Best Chef: New York State.”


Ayesha Nurdjaja (Shuka, NYC) and Cheetie Kumar (Garland, Raleigh, NC) were nominated for “Best Chef” but did not win. Dhamaka in New York City lost in the running for “Best New Restaurant,” but has still received explosive accolades for its authentic, daring, and unapologetic concept.

In Miami, chef Niven Patel’s restaurant, Ghee Indian Kitchen, was decorated with a Michelin Bib Gourmand (for exceptionally good food at moderate prices), at the first-ever Michelin Guide award ceremony in Florida. The Michelin Guides are published by the French company Michelin since 1900, and rankings are given to some of the finest restaurants around the world.

Indian American author, activist, model, and television host, Padma Lakshmi took her first James Beard for her Hulu-based TV show Taste the Nation, for which Lakshmi is both executive producer and host. In the show, she examines how different cultures use food to celebrate their respective winter holidays, tying stories to her own immigrant experience.

So what has changed for Indian cuisine to gather so much attention from critics and the “Oscars” of the culinary world? Has Indian cuisine in the U.S. become significantly innovative, are we seeing a new wave of talent, or have Americans finally begun to appreciate how evolved our food and flavors are?

I gathered some insights from the James Beard Foundation® about why this particular year was more favorable than ever to Indian chefs and restauranters. The James Beard Awards are considered to be among the nation’s most prestigious honors for chefs, restaurants, and culinary media.

Celebrating Diversity in 2022

While the mission of the Foundation was to recognize exceptional talent regardless of race, gender, and culture, ethnic restaurants often made up a fraction of these lists. In 2020 and 2021, the Foundation suspended the ceremonies and took time “for self-reflection around who and where we are as an organization.” They conducted an audit of their policies and procedures, and established compelling objectives: to continue the work to remove any systemic bias; increase the diversity of the voting body; ensure that communities far and wide know about the Awards and how eligible candidates may apply; increase transparency in how the Awards function; and align the Awards more outwardly with the Foundation’s mission and values. According to the Foundation’s website, “By amplifying new voices, celebrating those leading the way, and supporting those on the path to do so, the Foundation is working to create a more equitable and sustainable future…”


“The Awards are a great reminder that we are among innovators, entrepreneurs, and trailblazers who represent a wide range of regions, cultures, and cooking philosophies,” said Tanya Holland, chair of the James Beard Awards Committee. “And this year, in particular, is a great reminder of how incredibly diverse our industry is. I am proud of the changes the Foundation has made to the Awards program to ensure equity and inclusion, and though it is just the beginning of an ongoing commitment, we are already seeing the impact. This is the most diverse list I’ve seen in Awards history, and I am honored to be a part of that change.”

The Selection Process


The Foundation is also transparent about their selection process, though the names of people involved remains anonymous until after the Awards are announced. This year, the overseeing Awards Committee included Atlanta’s celebrity Anne Quatrano (chef/ owner of Bacchanalia, Star Provisions, and Floataway Café). The new selection process mandates a higher diversity of committee members and judges (which was roughly 45 percent this year). India-born writer, consultant, and spokesperson Raghavan Iyer served as vice-chair of the Broadcast Media Awards Committee, and cookbook author and food writer Chandra Ram served as vice-chair for the 2022 Journalism Awards Committee.​

Entries and recommendations for the Awards require a short write-up or audio/visual recording that demonstrates how the nominees and/or their work aligns with either the Awards mission or one or more of the Foundation’s values. Recommendations from the public are reviewed and considered by the subcommittee.

This year, Chai Pani from Asheville, which has been around for 13 years, was recognized as the best for its food (signature dish – butter chicken), atmosphere, hospitality, operations, and community contributions. Owner/ chef Meherwan Irani, wife Molly Irani, Decatur-based culinary director Daniel Peach, and other team members received the award at Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Irani was teary-eyed as he walked towards the stage to make his speech a few weeks short of his 40th birthday. He said he attributed his success to his team’s mastery of an attitude of service, where they consider every day to be an act of service. Besides being a successful entrepreneur, Irani is keen on serving the community around him, and perhaps even the world. He continued, “We are not perfect, we don’t serve outstanding food every day, but as restaurants, we have the collective power to transform the people who work there and the society we operate in. All we want to do is inspire, serve, and try to be better humans every day.” Irani thanked his mother in India, his daughter at home, and his wife who has been his partner in business and life.

While celebrating his win with a month-long vacation in India, Irani says, “This award means so much more than if I’d won just as a chef, because this award acknowledges EVERYONE who works to make a restaurant exist. The work now begins to live up to everyone’s expectations of what it means to be an ‘Outstanding Restaurant.’ For me, the work is as much about our food and hospitality as it is about what we do outside of the four walls – within our communities and beyond. Also, I’m so proud that what we represent is being recognized: That Indian food is so much more diverse, interesting, unexpected, and personal than a handful of regional cuisines that have been popularized so far. To me, there is no other food that captures the essence of India like street food – chaotic, colorful, innovative, vibrant, joyful, complex, and of course delicious.”

~ Written for and published by Khabar Magazine. All rights reserved.

Throw some color on your celebration with these Holi party ideas

Paperless Post. Feb 2022.

Play, laughter, and love are the essence of Holi, the Indian festival that marks the end of the dark and dreary winter and welcomes the bursting colors of spring. Each year, Holi kicks off the beginning of the spring growing season, and the festival is a chance to let loose and celebrate with family and friends, both old and new. Partygoers of all ages don all-white, eager to be covered in a kaleidoscope of colors at Holi parties around the world. It’s a time to blow off steam, dance like the Bollywood star you are in your heart, and indulge in delicious fried foods. What could be better?  

Because Holi is all about saying farewell to negative emotions, sore relationships, and harsh winters, it’s the perfect time to throw a technicolor party. Lucky for you, we have the most colorful Holi party ideas and the invitations to match. 

~ Continue reading on Paperless Post‘s blog...

Unique Diwali party ideas to light up your celebration

Paperless Post. December 2021.

For Hindus all around the world, Diwali (Divali or Deepavali) is the biggest festival on the calendar each year. During the days leading up to Diwali, friends and coworkers exchange gifts of dry fruits, sweets and precious metals. Children enjoy the festive atmosphere and anticipate spending quality time with cousins and extended family. On Diwali day, families wear their finest new clothes, illuminate their homes with lights, eat elaborate meals, and perform religious rituals. Others choose to celebrate Diwali by partying with neighbors and friends with music, dancing, and games. 

If you’re reading this article, you’re probably looking to light up your celebration with new tips and tricks that dispel darkness and bring on the fun. With our ideas, recipes, and, of course, our handmade Diwali invitations, you’ll throw the most memorable Diwali party ever.

Continue reading on Paperless Post’s blog…

For Indian Restaurants In NYC, What Does “Fine Dining” Really Mean Anymore?

The Infatuation. May 2021.

Upscale Indian restaurants are moving past white tablecloths and spinning their own version of Indian food as a sincere, personal experience.

For more than a century, the traditional American understanding of “fine dining” meant white tablecloths and French (or at least European) cuisine and modes of service. Fine dining might have come to New York earlier than elsewhere in the country, but any sort of non-Euro fine dining didn’t effectively exist in the city until the latter half of the 20th century. Chinese restaurants didn’t appear in numbers until the 1960s, with Shun Lee, arguably the city’s first Chinese fine-dining spot, opening in 1965. 

And the rise of Indian restaurants in New York came even later, fine or otherwise. “We are still very new, when it comes to our journey to the Western world,” says Vikas Khanna, judge of MasterChef Indiaand former executive chef at Junoon in Flatiron. The latest wave of Indian chefs and restaurateurs are less worried about fine dining as a category, focusing instead on spinning their own version of Indian food as a sincere, personal experience.

Historically speaking, the creaky idea of traditional fine dining didn’t take root in America overnight. It took several generations and thousands of establishments until even European cuisines called themselves fine dining in the United States. According to Ten Restaurants That Changed America by food historian Paul Freedman, in the beginning, Americans consumed large quantities of food at casual eating houses, chowing down in a rushed 10-20 minute seating. It wasn’t until restaurants like Delmonico’s appeared (first opened in 1827) that American menus began to change from the take-or-leave-it table d’hôte style to the more allegedly elegant French choice-driven à la carte.For Indian Restaurants In NYC, What Does “Fine Dining” Really Mean Anymore? feature image

Indian dining—fine or otherwise—didn’t appear substantially in New York until much later. Two of the first Indian spots in the city were the Ceylon Restaurant (opened in 1913) on Eighth Avenue at 43rd Street, and the Taj Mahal Hindu Restaurant (opened 1918) on 43rd Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues. It wasn’t until 1922 that the New York Times “discovered” the Ceylon, only to complain it was being overrun by tourists

Six short weeks ago an Indian restaurant was discovered on Eighth Avenue near Forty-second Street. Grave Indian gentlemen, with American clothes but with great turbans on their heads, used to come in for their curry and rice. Six short weeks—and already the restaurant is half full of tourists, eagerly peering at each other for turbans and local color.

The first major wave of Indian restaurants in New York City didn’t really crest until the 1970s, mainly opened by immigrants with limited resources. They followed a model that worked at the time—colorful walls adorned with tacky Indian souvenirs, blaring Bollywood music, and buffet-style bland Punjabi curries, all at a similar price point.For Indian Restaurants In NYC, What Does “Fine Dining” Really Mean Anymore? feature image

An early entry into Indian fine dining in Manhattan was Dawat, opened in 1986. The restaurant had internationally known actor, food writer, and cook Madhur Jaffrey on board as a consultant. Restaurateur Avtar Walia worked alongside Jaffrey as co-owner, and he found that her approach of pairing home cooking with higher presentation standards was the right mix in New York at the time. Walia himself opened Tamarind Flatiron in 1999, and later, Tamarind Tribeca in 2010, both of which followed this formula.

The 1990s and 2000s saw more upscale Indian restaurants open in New York, but owners describe a struggle to convince non-Indian diners to try a larger number of dishes. “When people came to Junoon, they didn’t want to look at the menu,” says Khanna. “They knew exactly what they wanted—the same dishes they had tried before, like saag paneer, chicken tikka masala, lamb vindaloo, garlic naan, and basmati rice.” By contrast, Khanna served six- to eight-course tasting menus that didn’t include any of those.

“Another factor at play is that Indians in general are apologetic about their own food,” says Roni Mazumdar, owner of AddaRahiMasalawala, and DhaMaKa. “Growing up, no one ever asked me if I wanted my food mild, medium, or spicy! We have this obsessive self-defeating desire to cater to the Western audience and lose our authenticity in the process. We feel more pride in using a foreign ingredient in our dishes, because we think it elevates us, as if we as Indians are simply not enough!”For Indian Restaurants In NYC, What Does “Fine Dining” Really Mean Anymore? feature image

American misperceptions about Indian food as being cheap and casual by default are of course common to other non-European cuisines—consider the challenges for high-end Mexican or Chinese restaurants to be taken seriously and charge accordingly. The assumption extends to ingredients and labor, which by the same logic must also be cheap. But Walia points out that, “Basmati rice is actually more expensive than any other variety.” 

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Indian Americans now have the highest median household income of any ethnic group. Members of the Indian diaspora in New York—a significant part of the consumer base for Indian restaurants—have begun to accept that Indian fine dining is worth the experience. In particular, Indian Americans with money to spend are more likely than ever to spend it on eating out.

Naturally, the media plays a significant role in influencing diners’ perceptions. Indian restaurants only started getting serious attention in major outlets like the New York Times and New Yorker relatively recently. It wasn’t until 2007 that an Indian restaurant in New York—the now-closed Devi in Flatiron—was awarded a Michelin star. “Were there no restaurants worthy of distinction before?” asks Walia, who has worked in the Indian food scene in New York for four decades.For Indian Restaurants In NYC, What Does “Fine Dining” Really Mean Anymore? feature image

Many American fine-dining restaurants are chef-driven, which is less common for Indian restaurants in America. Khanna explains that Indian chefs that are hired from India come to the United States on employer-sponsored visas. This dynamic makes them more dependent on their employers and likely to have a less prominent role in the business. But investors are gradually changing their views, seeing value in supporting the vision of their chefs and offering them more skin in the game with partnership, such as in the case of Bukhara Grill and the recently opened DhaMaKa.

“The second wave of Indian restaurateurs in New York sees the culinary industry as a profession, not just a job,” says Walia. Chefs like Khanna, Chintan Pandya at Adda, Hemant Mathur (who earned that Michelin star at Devi), the late Floyd Cardoz of Tabla, and Top Chef’s Suvir Saran graduated from prestigious culinary schools, worked at five-star hotels, and appear on television shows. They showcase elegantly plated regional Indian dishes served in smaller portions with minimal garnishes—like chef Akshay Bhardwaj’s chicken korma at Junoon—paired with specific wines and signature craft cocktails. Restaurant interiors have also moved beyond string lights and garlands, such as the famous wall of Indian newspapers at Adda, the muted beige color palette at Tamarind Tribeca, or original artwork by contemporary Indian artists at Sona

Mazumdar, himself in his 30s, feels that his generation is responsible for moving the narrative even further—to open the eyes of New Yorkers to what Indian food truly is. He encourages diners to eat with their hands from steel plates and clay pots. Mazumdar believes New York is seeing an emergence of yet another wave of chefs that are changing the definition of fine dining, across all cuisines. “The young generation associates luxury with authenticity, personal connection, and exclusive experiences,” says Mazumdar, “not with expensive chandeliers and white tablecloths.”

~ Continue reading on The Infatuation by Zagat.

How-To How to Make Roti with Gluten-Free Flour

For Chowhound. March 2020.

If you’ve never tried roti (or chapati), it’s a delicious flatbread that’s fairly easy to make at home—there’s no yeast involved. And you can make it with gluten-free flour too.

Roti is an unleavened flatbread commonly found in the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East, as well as parts of Africa and the Caribbean. Roll it with peanut butter, stuff it with scrambled eggs, dip it in curry, or mix it with spices. Wholesome, plant-based, vegan, and versatile, you can have roti at practically every meal.

Read more on Chowhound…

You Can Snow Ski, Sleep in a Houseboat, and Play at the Highest Golf Course in the World in the ‘Switzerland of India’

Travel+Leisure. April 2019.

Snow covered mountains, lush green valleys full of wildflowers, and cozy wood cabins aptly stamp Kashmir as the “The Switzerland of India.” Jammu and Kashmir — India’s northernmost state — is a popular destination among Indian travelers and slowly being discovered by the rest of the world because of its rich culture and captivating scenery changing with every season.

Continue reading on Travel+Leisure website.

My Journey through Kashmir, the Misperceived Paradise of India

For Khabar Magazine. November 2018 print issue. 

The “Welcome to Kashmir” sign at the modest Sheikh ul-Alam Airport was draped by posters of a scene from a popular 1981 Bollywood movie, Silsila, where the romantic couple Amitabh Bachchan and Rekha sing a duet at the Indira Gandhi Memorial Tulip Garden of Srinagar (the largest tulip garden in Asia). Having watched countless movies filmed in Kashmir’s snowy mountains, lush valleys, pristine lakes, and flowery gardens, I was excited to discover what’s known as the ‘Switzerland of India.’


The famous Kashmiri kahwah, a traditional green tea brewed with saffron, and topped with chopped almonds.

My first stop was Fortune Resort Heevan in Srinagar located near the famous Dal Lake. This 39-room family-owned boutique hotel under the Ahad Hotels brand was one of the first hotel chains in the valley. Inside, it looks like a modern Kashmiri cabin made of wood, with floral carpets, walnut carved chairs, and embroidered tapestry. Right away, I am greeted with a cup of hot Kashmiri kahwah, a traditional green tea brewed with saffron, and topped with chopped almonds.

I could just picture one of the movie scenes where people are wearing warm pashmina shawls, sitting outside in a green lawn with a backdrop of the majestic Zabarwan Mountains, sipping on tea and soaking in the scenery. I was about to replay the scene, in real life.

The capital city of Srinagar has two distinct sections. The more tourist friendly area around Dal Lake is filled with gardens built in the 17th century by Mughal emperors. With rows of neatly planted flowers on terraced lawns, breezy pavilions, and cascading water fountains, the most famous gardens are Chashme Shahi (the royal spring), Nishat Bagh (garden of bliss), Shalimar Bagh (abode of love), and Pari Mahal (angel’s abode). There’s also the hilltop Shankaracharya Mandir dedicated to Lord Shiva, and Hazratbal Mosque, which is said to contain strands of Islamic prophet Muhammad’s hair.


The early morning floating market, a place where local villagers gather at the lake to sell their produce, and wholesalers from land come to shop.

Most of the gardens overlook the scenic urban Dal Lake. Brightly colored canopied deluxe shikaras (Kashmiri boats) made of deodar (Himalayan cedar) wood can be hired for a relaxing ride. A not-to-be-missed experience is waking up in the early morning to see the floating market, a place where local village dwellers gather at the lake to sell their produce, and wholesalers from land come to shop. My shikara paddler and I drifted through the calm waters of the Dal in complete darkness, feeling the early morning mist turning into a bluish hazy sky. At the crack of dawn, men arrived in their long wooden boats filled with tomatoes, bitter gourd, green beans, eggplants, and long melons. Apparently, the rich nutrient properties of the lake allow for rad (floating gardens), so farmers grow vegetables in the water. Sitting on the very edge of the boat, smoking cigarettes, one shikara guy would come closer to the other and have polite long discussions, possibly negotiating the price of the vegetables or just catching up on daily chatter.


A woman rows to a grocery store in Dal Lake.

While I did come across hundreds of houseboats on Dal and nearby Nigeen Lake mostly used as floating hotels, it was interesting to see that there was an entire village in the lake where the Kashmiri people lived. Handicrafts, carpet, shawl, jewelry, and grocery shops were all floating in the lake. Women would row their way to get their provisions, just as they would walk to a neighborhood store.

11_18_Travel_ShikaraDal.jpg 11_18_Travel_Shikara.jpg

The famous shikaras, the wooden boats, range from personal vehicles to tourist boats and more.

The Old City of Srinagar is the economic and residential downtown. Here you will find shanty towns, old buildings with intricate wooden balconies, narrow streets lined with shops selling copper utensils, dried fruits, and raw pashmina wool. There is also the largest mosque in Kashmir, Jama Masjid, which was originally built in 1294, and there are cruises along the Jhelum River to witness everyday life without sitting in heavy traffic.

Culinary enthusiasts can discover a variety of restaurants in the Old City serving traditional Kashmiri wazwan, a multicourse meal of meat (mostly lamb, mutton, and chicken) simmered over the wood of fruit trees in nickel-plated copper vessels. Most hotels offer the popular dishes as entrees: seekh kebabs (minced meat skewers), waza chicken (fried chicken in red curry), rogan josh (spicy lamb curry), ghustaba (minced meatballs), dum aloo (sour potatoes curry), and nadru yakhni (lotus stems in yogurt sauce), to name a few.

After breakfast of girda (Kashmiri bread) and noon chai (salty pink tea), I take a road trip to the neighboring hill station of Gulmarg. Winding through the Pir Panjal Range in the western Himalayas, I notice the sudden drop in temperature as we go up to the winter sports capital of India. Hardly anyone lives in Gulmarg, which is mostly an Army base, and there are very few small hotels. What attracts international visitors to come here is the second highest gondola in the world, reaching an attitude of 13,800 feet. There’s also the highest golf course in the world, at 8,690 feet, and one of the first places to open an exclusive golf course for women by the British civil servants.

As I rise above the green pine and fir forests, nomadic mud homes, and shepherd colonies covering Kongdoori Mountain, there is nothing but rocks and clouds at Apharwat Peak. Gulmarg gets an average of 14 meters of snow each year, which makes it an ideal location for a ski school. In the peak of summer, there is still some snow on the ground and tourists from around India are excited to make snow balls for the first time in their lives.

After a break for chai and piping hot vegetable pakoras at the first stage of the ropeway, I descend to Hotel Heevan Retreat in Gulmarg. Though the ski lodge was built only in 2006, its dilapidated condition attests to how infrastructure is limited in this part of the country. As my waiter serves a delicious bowl of chicken biryani topped with boiled eggs, nuts, and coconut flakes, he tells me that the hotels in the area must get special permits to do renovations on the property and are not allowed to bring any raw materials into the valley. Unfortunately, private businesses rely heavily on political agendas.

Meadows full of daisies, forget-me-nots, and buttercups (wildflowers), and a Shiv temple with red roof also remind me of old Hindi movies. “The song ‘Jai Jai Shiv Shankar’ with Rajesh Khanna and Mumtaz was filmed at this very spot,” my driver, Mohammad Shafi, informs me, taking great pride in the natural beauty of the land he calls home.


Kids sporting local attire at Pari Mahal Gardens.

We move on to Pahalgam, a small tourist town located along the banks of the crystal blue waters of the Lidder River. From my room at Hotel Heevan (meaning ‘heaven’ in Kashmiri), I can hear the screams and laughter of children at the amusement park across the river. Colorful old buses packed with kids and families arrive in surrounding Aru and Betaab Valleys all through the weekend. Families grill kebabs on portable BBQs, sit in circles, and crack jokes, against the backdrop of beautiful Lidder Valley. It looks like a weekend activity anywhere else in the world. You can hear them sing Bollywood songs at the top of their lungs as they ride through the meandering mountain roads past thick pine forests back to their homes. This may be the closest it comes to heaven on Earth.

Whenever I speak to anyone about Kashmir, the first question they ask me is, “Is it safe to go there?” as if I had put myself into a dangerous position by traveling to what was once India’s most popular tourist destination. Honestly, as a solo female traveler, I feel Kashmir was safer than most places in India. I can comfortably walk alone without strangers staring or passing comments. I never feel that I must look out for my belongings. Yes, there are armed militia on the streets practically at every corner, but they never bother anyone and life goes on as usual.


The author with local students at the Chashme Shahi Gardens.

After speaking to the locals about the situation, I gathered that much of it is “media hyped” and the Kashmiri people prefer to live in harmony despite their religious differences. Every person I encountered—from restaurant doormen, taxi drivers, and waiters, to shop keepers who sold me cashmere shawls and carpets—each of them went above and beyond to welcome me as if I were a family member. They asked me where I was from and how I liked Kashmir, invited me to their homes for kahwah, and even befriended me on Facebook!

Still, tourism to this enchanted area of northern India is at an all-time low. Hotels are practically empty, Kashmiris are leaving the state for jobs elsewhere, and artisans are willing to let go of their products at bargain prices. Managing Director of Ahad Hotels, Mr. Asif Iqbal Burza, states, “The only thing we aim for is for people to come here, experience Kashmir firsthand, and share the true image with their friends. We have been able to survive hardships by offering sincere Kashmiri hospitality, and hope that our guests will act as brand ambassadors to help change perceptions.”

~ Written for Khabar Magazine

Travel: Here’s Why KERALA Continues to Be One of the Top Tourist Destinations of India

For Khabar Magazine print edition. February 2018.

Warm humid air, the smell of roasting curry leaves, voices sounding singsong Malayalam, coconut trees as far as I can see—I had arrived in Kerala, also known as God’s Own Country.

As soon as I landed at Kochi International Airport, I felt like I was no longer in the India I was so familiar with. Being raised in the north (Punjab), I could instantly see a drastic contrast in the environment and attitudes of the people. The two-lane highways in Cochin were lined with colorful shops selling everything from masala tea and banana chips, to 24K gold jewelry. But as thousands of vehicles drove past during rush hour, each gave way to the other in an orderly fashion with barely audible honking, a background sound I had been accustomed to until a few hours ago. In Kerala, traffic, people, nature—all hummed a similar tone of peace and harmony.

Kerala has been named India’s most advanced state (if not in the top two) in many respects. It is the safest, healthiest, most environment-friendly state with some of the best educational and agricultural prospects in the country. With high literacy (over 94%), equal opportunities for women, and very little poverty, Kerala has become the epitome of success for India’s development. It is no wonder that tourists from all over India and abroad who are seeking a calm and ecofriendly retreat head to Kerala.

My first stop in Kerala is Marari Beach, a 2-hour drive from Kochi, where I am greeted at my hotel by smiling staff members dressed in perfectly pleated saris and starched white mundus (a garment wrapped at the waist like a lungi). They offer me cold tender coconut water picked from their own front yard and usher me into a thatched-roof bungalow with a spacious bathroom that has a semi-open roof shower. I feel that I am at a luxurious fishing village, surrounded by nature, but equipped with modern amenities.

Set on 30 acres of beachfront covered with coconut groves, lily ponds, fruit trees, and a large organic farm, I feel instantly relaxed at Marari Beach Resort in Mararikulam. Many people come here for week-long wellness retreats indulging in daily yoga lessons, Ayurveda massages, and customized vegan meals to heal their bodies.


(Left) A mouthwatering destination for foodies. Seafood Thali.

While listening to melodious tabla and flute played by live performers, I feast on my first Kerala meal of fresh grilled seafood, fragrant meat stews, appam (fermented rice pancakes), and a dozen homemade pickles from vegetables picked at the resort’s organic gardens. Abundant with spices, the cuisine of Kerala includes a wide assortment of vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes flavored with chilies, mustard seeds, coconut oil, curry leaves, and ghee. Most ingredients are grown locally, if not in people’s own backyard gardens. Even the spices and oils are harvested from neighboring villages, ensuring quality and freshness. The “50 Mile Diet” is a reality here as most meals are cooked with ingredients sourced within 50 miles of the resorts.

The next day, I wake up at the crack of dawn to stroll on a secluded beach, gazing at the power waves of the Arabian Sea, and to practice a few of my asanas with the very flexible resident yogi. Yoga is an essential part of the mind-body restoration and practically all resorts offer free yoga lessons.

After a breakfast of freshly made dosas, it is time to explore the neighboring town of Alleppey, popularly known as “Venice of the East” due to its intricate network of canals.


(Right) A Hindu temple in Alleppey.

Alleppey—or Alapuzha as it has been renamed—is a great place to see the harmonious religious diversity of Kerala. It is believed that Christianity came to Kerala in the first century. Kerala is now home to the largest population of Christians in India. At Christ the King Church, I see statues of Jesus decorated with money garlands just like you would at a Hindu temple. Just next door, one can hear the Muslim call to prayer. There are a few Hindu and Jain temples around Alleppey that are also worth visiting. Colorful painted wood, stone, and metals are used to create multiple-storeyed pyramid style structures and compound walls.

I walk through the grand entrance (rajagopuram) and go in barefoot to pay my respects to the Gods at the majestic Kidangamparambu Sree Bhuvaneswari Temple. There is a feast, festival, or celebration taking place throughout the year, with processions and offerings at the temples and churches. Common to all religious communities is the harvest festival of Onam, which takes place for 10 days sometime in August-September.


(Left) Usually there is a clash between commerce and natural beauty, since development cuts into the latter. The lush green landscapes of tea plantations, however, translate to great commerce as well.

I continue my journey, heading inland on a winding road through lush green cardamom hills and terraced tea plantations to the hill station of Thekkady. Many of the tea factories in the area offer tours and tastings, so I stop to pick up packets of green and black teas at wholesale prices. The small town of Thekkady is densely packed with spice shops selling freshly dried cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, black pepper, vanilla, and nuts. Nearby, there is a cardamom (elaichi) sorting factory and the largest cardamom auction house in the world. The aromatic seeds were first commercialized by the British who developed plantations, and India is now the biggest producer of cardamom in the world. It is hard not to stock up for the year on high quality spices sold at a fraction of store prices!



(Right) Spice Village, the author’s lodging in Thekkady.

My lodging in Thekkady is aptly named, Spice Village, and is the oldest mountain village-style resort in the area. Surrounded by hills and backed by forest, the cottages are spaced around spice trees. A naturalist takes me around the property to introduce me to the variety of flora, and the monkeys and birds that hang around the cottages. Keeping true to Kerala’s eco-friendly nature, the resort grows its own food, filters and bottles its own water, composts food waste, harnesses solar energy, and even makes its own paper. Local culture is also intricately tied into the visitor experience. In the evening, guests gather in the community hall to watch live performances of Bharatanatyam and Mohiniyattam before retiring to Woodhouse Bar for a nightcap. The former home of forest ranger Mr. A. W. Woods is converted into a British-style pub with old black and white photos, antiques, and a 150-year-old billiards table.


(Left) Crossing the river by old-fashioned rafts, to get to the Periyar Tiger Reserve.

We watch an exciting slideshow at the Interpretation Center – Tiger Club located at Spice Village, thrilled at the prospect of encountering tigers and elephants in the wild. Dressed in camouflage, leech-proof socks, and walking boots, I make my way to Periyar Tiger Reserve on a bus, then cross the river on an old-fashioned bamboo raft, and finally set foot into the forest. After a few hours of trekking through the serene sanctuary set in the mountainous Western Ghats, my ranger and I only see some wild dogs, giant squirrels, deer, langur, macaque, and mongoose. “Chances of seeing a tiger are very rare!” he informs me, though evidence of sighting exists in pictures back at the Tiger Club.

One cannot come to Kerala and not experience the backwaters, one of the most popular tourist destinations in India. Kerala backwaters are made up of five lakes and 38 rivers, linked by canals. The backwaters are an important part of Kerala’s infrastructure as they provide water for irrigation, access for transporting rice, and environment for aquatic life. Kumarakom, located on the banks of the Vembanad Lake is my next stop. Many people come here to rent a houseboat or ketuvallam and cruise on the waters for a night, enjoying the cool breeze and eating fresh catch. Watching the architecture and design of the traditional Kerala houseboats is charming as you see these floating homes (equipped with beds and restrooms) make their way through coconut groves, water hyacinth ponds, and rice paddies.

I decide to stay at Coconut Lagoon, a heritage hotel located by India’s longest lake. Accessible only by boat, a water taxi brings me to the reception of the hotel, which is intertwined by lagoons and bridges. Each of the buildings is made of wood salvaged from historic homes from all over Kerala and reassembled on the property. The inside of the room looks like an intricately carved wooden houseboat. With spectacular views of the lake, rice paddies, gardens, and a bird sanctuary, it is hard not to feel completely relaxed.

02_18_Travel_Ayurveda.jpg(Right) Kerala is a popular destination for Ayurvedic massages, and detox and rejuvenation retreats.

If the scenery and organic food is not enough to comfort the senses, two Ayurvedic doctors (known as vaids) are available at the spa to diagnose and treat common ailments. Ayurveda is one of the oldest medicinal practices in the world and widely followed in Kerala. It is believed that the wet temperate climate, abundance of medicinal plants, and an abundance of Ayurveda colleges and researchers make Kerala an ideal place to consistently experience the benefits of Ayurveda. After a brief conversation with my doctor and diagnosis of my vata, pitta, and kapha, I am advised to get a four hands massage to help with my stiff neck and shoulder aches. Using a mixture of essential oils and extracts, two ladies gently rub the liquid in circular motion to release tension and relax my muscles.

To end the day, a local lady known simply as “Amma” pulls in her canoe to serve chai and snacks to the guests staying at the resort. She skillfully ribbons her homemade masala tea from one steel cup to another offering a magical show of sorts that entertains kids and adults. We sit on the green lawn, sipping on hot tea and gaze out at the calm waters. Being in Kerala for a week has slowed me down and infused the sense of tranquility that every vacationer seeks.

~ Written for Khabar Magazine. February 2018.