A stroll down Commercial Street
Relishing slices of red guava sprinkled with chaat masala I bought from a street vendor, I wander down Commercial Street. Situated in a prime area in Bangalore with a colourful jumble of high end brands such as Arrow and Allen Solly and stalls consisting of a cart selling cheap jewellery and bangles, roast corn on the cob, and poly-mangoes, it is popular area among young and old. Rich and poor coexist as women with large shopping bags chatter loudly, desensitised to the sight of beggars with missing limbs on a street that is lined by shops selling clothes they could never afford. Yet everyone seems to get by and perhaps that is the magic of India.
I am soon aware that passer-bys are shooting me disapproving looks and I realise with a smile that it’s because I am eating in public. It’s one of those quaint Indian customs I’d forgotten about – no one walks down the street eating, stuffing their face with a masala dosa on their way to work the way you might see professionals in New York grab a bagel as they high-tail it for the subway. And nowhere in New York could you buy guavas for Rs 30 (about 0.50 USD) and know that you could probably bargain the price down further. It’s a known fact that foreigners and expats will usually get a higher price quoted at them than locals but with some practiced head-bobbing and an Indian accent that becomes more pronounced the longer I return to India for, I can practically halve the price of anything I’m buying from a stall. Just call the owner Uncle and pretend you’re a young student – works every time.
Paani Puri and Masala Dosa
Bangalore is the silicon valley of India, attracting talented software programmers and Information systems experts from around the country. The influx of money and booming economy are a product of India’s large population. Stories circulate of clerks who gave up their full-time job to start a Paani Puri stall and never look back. On that note, if you go anywhere in India you have to try the chaat. The breaking of a Paani Puri in your mouth can’t be described in words but I’ll try. Imagine a gel ball that you get as a topping at Frozen Yoghurt shops and that moment when it pops in your mouth and the liquid escapes. Now imagine that instead of it being sweet, the ball is crunchy, and the liquid tangy and sweet and spicy all at the same time. That is Paani Puri.One could fall into the trap of the ‘exotic India’ cliché, the India of colourful saris and spices that assault your senses, the India of Kamasutra and riding on elephants. I will stop with that extravagant explanation of Paani Puri. Suffice to say that India is a vibrant bustling country and no trip to Bangalore would be complete without a masala dosa at Shiv Sagar or Shanti Sagar on the little laneway just off Anand Sweetshop on Commercial Road. Anand Sweetshop is an institution in itself, selling Baadam (Almond) Milk since long before my time. My brother and I love Shiv Sagar for dosas which has to be followed by Chocolate Sizzlers.
Shivajinagar and Lal Bagh
On the other side of commercial road through the backstreets of roads lined with clothes, shoes, and jewellery shops is Shivajinagar, known for its muslim population where houses have high walls and imposing black wrought iron gates. In the midst of this rabbits’ warren of stalls and tiny shops is St. Mary’s Basilica, flanked by Russell Market, where you can find anything from childrens’ toys and pressure cookers to vegetables and furniture. For those willing to venture a bit further out, you can try Medu Vadas and Idli Dosa at Brahmins, a popular breakfast joint where you can stand and eat from steel taalis with locals grabbing a bite before work. Relatively close by are Bangalore’s famous Lal Bagh Botanical Gardens, a public park that hosts a flower show every year featuring chariots, animals, and palaces made entirely out of flowers. Families flock to this oasis as greenery is hard to come by in the midst of the dust and traffic. Yet Bangalore has more greenery than other metropolitan cities in India, with Gulmohar and Jacaranda trees lining busy roads in the city. Bangaloreans who have lived in this Garden City for over 50 years will disagree as the city was a lot greener while they grew up.
MG Road and Brigade Road
However India is not all food and flowers, the huge disparity between the classes is evident when you see children begging, knocking on car windows at traffic lights whilst they carry their younger siblings. You cannot help but feel guilty and ashamed when you see such poverty. It is often better to give them food rather than money, as often the money sadly does not end up feeding them but in the hands of the adult who maimed them. Eunuchs are also much more common in India for the same reason and they can often be seen at busy junctions at Brigade Road and MG Road asking for money and clapping their hands. Further along MG Road are numerous bookshops that you can spend hours in poring over books you would never find in a library, and shops selling beautifully handcrafted wooden toys and artifacts.
In the residential areas you will hear the early morning calls of people selling fresh fruit and vegetables on carts shouting the prices and housewives hand money out of the window, collecting bananas and pomegranate. The rubbish vans also come door to door and neighbours gather at the gate lamenting the irregularity of the rubbish collection and complain about the street dogs fighting all night. In the distance the call to prayer can be heard from a nearby mosque as church bells chime soon after. Like the rest of India, residents of Bangalore have many different religions and cultural customs.
In the centre of Bangalore you will enjoy an evening at Ulsoor Lake and not far from there is Mosque Road with the best shawarma you could eat. Further out are huge shopping malls like Garuda Mall, Mantri Square and Forum in Koramangala. While I enjoy eating South-Indian food in Bangalore that I crave when I return home, middle-class locals prefer Western dishes, eating at places like Millers 46, Toits, Barbeque Nation and Hole in the Wall a café in Koramangala that is raved about by locals. While most tourists want to eat local food, if you do get sick (or homesick), it’s probably best to stick to food you’re familiar with so keep these in mind.
Tips to the Brave
A word to those who want to immerse themselves in new food and local flavours without getting food poisoning:
• Make sure you eat chutney in the morning, as the same chutney is watered down by evening and more likely to contain bacteria
• If you’re thirsty buy bottled water or coconut water. No matter how appetising a milkshake looks in a stall or train station, if they don’t have a cooler chances are the milk is already off and the water is unfiltered.
• Don’t eat raw salads. The vegetable was probably cut hours ago and you’ll be served a salad with jaundice dressing and hospital stay as a side.
If you believe you have a stomach of iron – go hard. I have never gotten food poisoning from street food in India as yet. If you’re feeling adventurous you can try lamb brains or “beja fry” at one of the many shawarma and kebab shops along Coles Road or Paya, lamb legs roasted and cooked with spices for more than four hours so the meat practically melts in your mouth.
Getting out of the City
And if food is not on your agenda and Maccas and Pizza Hut is more your cup of tea, there is plenty to see in Bangalore as well. The bright red high court of Karnataka leads the way to the Cubbon Park and Tipu Sultan’s Palace built entirely out of teakwood. If you want to get out of the city entirely Nandi Hills is an ideal destination to escape from the honking of cars and auto rickshaws and cows crossing the road.
Like Alice in Wonderland
Regardless of how you choose to spend your time in Bangalore, there is something for everyone. While the flurry of activity on the streets and food can be exciting, it’s important to remember to be respectful of cultural differences and dress appropriately to be sensitive to customs and for your own safety. Like Alice falling down the rabbit hole, experiencing a city with a culture and environment so vastly different from your own can be challenging. There will be times you will want to drink from one bottle so you can blend into the crowd without the curious stares you will no doubt receive, and times when you will want to eat a mushroom so that you can assert your own culture when confronted with customs that are so different from your own. I hope that when you return you won’t wake up like Alice and wonder if it had all been a dream but that these experiences shape you, inject a burst of colour into your life and you can look back at your time in Bangalore with fond memories like I always do.