Category Archives: Food

A Perfect Birthday Cake in Istanbul

All four of us are celebrating our birthdays during our around the world journey. In January I turned a year older in Kodaikanal, India where I went to boarding school. Kayan blew out his two candles in Goa in February. Sandeep is in the spotlight today, ringing in his 3X year in Istanbul.

I’ve already angered the smoke alarm by burning a dish in our Istanbul oven, so we decided against baking a cake here. Instead we went on a hunt for the perfect vehicle to hold Sandeep’s birthday candles. Our biggest problem was choice. Sure we could go with a conventional cake, but what fun would that be in a country full of amazing sweets?

We thought about topping a pile of Turkish delight with a candle.

We considered going all out with this pistachio goodness of a show stopper.

The kids advocated for a marzipan fruit bowl.

We tried all of the options, wanting to make sure our purchase tasted as good as it looked. After the tasting fest, we thought that perhaps we should preserve the caloric intake and just go with a Play Doh cake. Ava and Kayan demonstrated their best confectionery abilities.

In the end, we decided to honor baklava. Surrounding countries stake claim to having invented the addictive dessert, but Turkey has the most evidence indicating that it was in fact developed by the Ottomans. Every other store in Istanbul proudly displays baklava of all shapes and colors in its windows. Our greedy eyes settled on a one kilo assortment of eight different types of gooey, honey dripping goodness from Mado, an dessert institution in the heart of Istanbul.

Next month we will celebrate Ava’s fourth birthday. We’re not yet sure where, but I’m already doubting the hunt for the perfect cake will be quite as exciting.


Filed under Food, Turkey

Fish Sandwiches by the Galata Bridge

Fish is the one thing all four of us devour with equal enthusiasm. Raw, cured, smoked, fried, grilled – we’ll take it however it’s dished. Istanbul is perfectly suited for feeding us. Living between the Black Sea, Sea of Marmara and Bosphorus, Istanbullus practically have fish jumping onto their dinner plates.

We went on an evening search for the famous fish sandwiches that are sold around the Galata Bridge. The Galata Bridge exemplifies one thing I love about cities – it allows anyone to become anonymous. The crowd on its span includes elderly men smoking water pipes, women gossiping, young families clutching their children, and many fisherman, professional and novice alike. It’s a perfect place to people watch and, if you decide to take an afternoon nap amid the hustle, no one will mind if you do.

Stalls selling bait and tackle supply what’s needed to the line of expectant fishermen who perch their rods over the bridge’s railings. Our family could have spent the entire afternoon watching the life on and around the bridge. The eager fishermen were friendly (when not asleep), and the backdrop of the Aya Sofia across the bridge and the boats over the Bosphorus was enough to keep us captivated.

Once over the bridge, we began our search for the famous fish in bread, balik ekmek. The fishermen of Istanbul have been bringing in their catch from the surrounding waters to the bridge for decades. Over time, they became increasing industrious and decided to start grilling the fresh fish right on their boats. An efficient way to feed hungry customers from such tight quarters was to stuff a filet into a loaf of bread. Cheap and delicious. Istanbul has been cleaning up its hygiene in its aspirations to enter the European Union and as part of this effort, the city cracked down on these small operations. However, the tradition continues today in the form of licensed boats tied to the docks.

There are several balik ekmek boats on the Eminonu side of the Galata Bridge, each of which is attached to an open air eatery with dozens of kiddie sized picnic tables and stools. Each establishment is more crowded than the next.

We grabbed the first open table and found out quickly this would be the easiest order we’ve made so far in Istanbul. Balik ekmek is the only thing on the menu, so all we had to do was put up as many fingers as we wanted in sandwiches.

Balik ekmek is a fishy filet of grilled mackerel smacked into a half loaf of white baguette. A scoop of onion salad keeps the fish company. The traditional way to enjoy the sandwich is to drink it with pickle juice. There are separate stalls selling pickle juice, with our without the pickles.

If pickle juice is not your thing, you can buy a soft drink or water from one of the several vendors milling around the tables. I suspect such deviation from pickle juice is meant just for tourists. Dessert comes in the form of gooey donuts, also sold by walking vendors.

At 5 Lira (about $3) a sandwich, belik ekmek is one of our cheapest food purchases thus far in Turkey. It’s also one of our most satisfying. The fish choices in Istanbul have been a welcome change from our food options in central Turkey, which predominantly revolved around meat. A few clean bones of mackerel were the only evidence of our balik ekmeks. I even drank an entire glass of pickle juice.


Filed under Food, Turkey

Window Shopping for Carrots in Istanbul

We’re loving Istanbul. It has everything we love about a city. Architectural soul and history? Check. Coffee houses, restaurants and food choices galore? Check. Open and plentiful public spaces? Check. Good public transportation? Check. Galleries, boutiques and street art? Check.

We just got here and our explorations have barely started. Our first order of business after settling into a new place is figuring out groceries. Ava and Kayan can’t go more than a few hours without needing a yogurt or cereal fix. Luckily for us, the Turks put yogurt on nearly everything. Also luckily for us, there are three corner stores in a one block radius that sell household staples, which in Turkey includes a variety of freshly squeezed juices, nuts, olives and cheeses.

On our first day here, as we were sipping wine (also plentiful in Turkey) on our balcony, we noticed our neighbors lowering wicker baskets from their windows and balconies into the streets. Our confusion was answered when a pick-up truck filled with produce slowed to a stop on our corner. We witnessed the street’s evening ritual. The veggie guy stops by every day at six, the women send down their baskets with money, yell down their order, and the vendor places the goods and change into the basket to be hauled back up. Now that lends a whole new meaning to window shopping.

We don’t have our own basket and pulley (yet!) so I had to run down for our fruits and veggies. The next afternoon a similar ritual happened for the lentil and rice vendor. This time Sandeep went down to collect our rice.

We’ve shopped for vegetables in Thai markets. We’ve picked them off our backyard in Goa. We’ve even bought fruit off a boat in Myanmar. However, we have yet to make a produce purchase on a pulley. Yet another wonderful thing about travel – it has the potential of making an onion purchase exciting.


Filed under Food, Turkey

Saffron Scented Safranbolu

I’ve never been a big fan of saffron. I think its soapy taste destroys dishes. When we decided to spend two nights in the Black Sea town of Safranbolu, it was for the town’s laid back feel and architecture, not because it has been a centuries old center for saffron cultivation and trading.

UNESCO put its World Heritage Center stamp on Safranbolu for its preservation of traditional Ottoman architecture and culture. As an important caravan station on the East-West trade route, Safranbolu prospered and set a high bar for Ottoman style. We spent an entire day meandering the narrow streets, admiring the old houses, mosques, and hammam, while sipping tea and snacking on local pastries.

Even though we didn’t come for the saffron, we couldn’t escape it. Saffron is sold everywhere and in every form in the alleys of Safranbolu. There’s saffron Turkish delight, which Sandeep’s brother bought along with other exotic flavors such as rose and pistachio.

Saffron is supposed to be very good for hair and skin and there is every variety of beauty product on sale, from saffron oil to saffron soap.

Naturally, there is saffron itself, which is used in a variety of savory and sweet dishes throughout Asia, the Middle East and Europe. We weren’t here for the saffron but it was hard not to participate in the saffron exuberance. Dinner led to a turning point. We went to Kadioglu Sehzade Sofrasi, a restaurant specializing in local cuisine and ordered one of almost everything on the menu. Our dessert options were baklava or saffron pudding. Not ones to miss dessert, we caved in for the pudding. According to the people of Safranbolu, one has not lived until trying the town’s safranli zerde. I figured if anything changed my opinion on saffron, this would be it.

Sadly, to me, it still tasted like a spoonful of soap, albeit with a healthy dose of sugar. The kids didn’t much care for it either and, I suppose rather offensively, we left most if the dish untouched. While we weren’t saffron converts, we did leave Safranbolu with a lot of saffron knowledge.

– Saffron threads are the stigma of the purple saffron crocus flower. These are tediously handpicked and air dried.

– Like diamonds, saffron have grades. The grades are based on color, taste and fragrance.

– At $ 100,000 a kilogram, the spot price of saffron from Safranbolu is double that of gold. A pinch of saffron will take you further than a few gold flakes, though.

– Saffron has supposed medicinal functions including serving as an anti-depressant and immune system modulator.

We try to keep open minds when we travel, but sometimes prejudices and tastes, like my dislike for saffron, can get in the way. I was determined to avoid the spice and instead ended up fascinated by all the hype. That’s the great thing about travel, it forces you to experience new things, even if you don’t always end up loving them.

If you are a saffron fan, try out this recipe for safranli zerde.

1/4 cup short grain rice, soaked and drained
6 cups water
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon saffron soaked in a little warm water
Thickening agent, such as 3 tablespoons dissolved cornstarch

Boil the rice with half the water until just done. Drain. Boil the sugar with the remaining water. Turn down the heat to a simmer and add the rice, saffron and saffron water, and thickening agent. Stir just until it starts to bubble. Dish out into serving bowls and chill in the fridge. Serve cold.

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Kerala Stew Recipe

A Minor Diversion’s posting frequency will fall until February 23rd. We are in Myanmar, where internet access is not a guarantee. I’ve set up these posts to go live while we are away. Even though they are about our time in India, I didn’t want to miss sharing some final Kerala experiences with you. We’ll have stories from Myanmar once we are back.

The term spice usually conjures up thoughts of fiery tongues. In reality, spices are varied. No place in the world offers a bounty as rich as India. In addition to black peppercorns (which can cause one to run for water), spices include such sweet things as cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, anise seed and nutmeg. In terms of global spice production, India contributes over 80 percent.

Kerala land is so fertile, that spices grow everywhere, and pepper vines seem to crawl up every available tree. Most houses here harvest some spices on their own property. This drying pepper was just outside a small village house by Allepuzha.

In addition to the unavoidable black pepper and green chilies, spices find their way into almost every Kerala dish. My ultimate favorite is stew, which showcases several spices in a light coconut gravy. This is the dish Amma prepared the first time I met Sandeep’s parents. After falling in love with him, this dish had me falling for Amma too.

Stew is easy on the tongue since the black peppers and green chilies remain relatively intact, adding just enough warning so you know they exist. Stew can be made with vegetables, mutton or fish. Here is a step by step guide taken as I follow Amma along.

The spices are set aside in two equal batches. One will be boiled with the mutton, another will be roasted to the make the gravy. The spices include about a tablespoon each of whole black pepper, whole cardamom, and whole cloves, along with several broken sticks of cinnamon.

2 pounds of cubed mutton, with bones, are cooked with half the spices, a teaspoon of salt and a tablespoon of vinegar (or lemon juice) until the meat is tender.

The remaining spices are roasted in a heavy pan. A mix of 2 large sliced onions, 2 inches of chopped ginger, 4 large crushed garlic pods, two sprigs of curry leaves and four sliced green chilies (or less if four sounds scary) are then added and sautéed until the onions are soft. A couple of carrots and potatoes can be added in at this point if you want vegetables.

The sautéed mixture is added to the meat and cooked until the potatoes are done. Lastly, two cups of coconut milk are added, with two quartered tomatoes. The stew simmers for another few minutes (but is never allowed to boil) and the dish is ready. My experience is that letting the stew rest for a while results in a stronger infusion of the spices into the coconut milk

Stew is traditionally served with appam, a rice pancake cooked in a small wok (likely a handover from Chinese influence in the area). Appam can be made from scratch, but in this case Amma uses a packet. One ladle of mixture is spooned into the middle of the wok, and then with an elegant twist of her wrists, Amma swirls the batter.  The result is a lacy frill and pillowy center, perfect for soaking the stew.

The stew brims with the flavors of the spices. I learned that it is perfectly acceptable to push aside the spices and just enjoy the gravy, vegetables and meat. A mouthful of cloves and cardamom is overwhelming, even to a Malayalee. I’ve had stew all over Kerala, but Amma still gets the best results out of her spices. Here is Kayan, blissfully passed out on her lap after filling his belly with a stew meal.

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Back to the Roots in Kerala

Sandeep fondly recalls tales of his youth in a Kerala village, Neercadu. He spent six years here as a kid, “playing with sticks, chasing chickens and riding bikes.” I had this bucolic notion of their family house and the reality did not disappoint. Neercadu is a small village, about two hours from Cochin. Everyone knows everyone. In fact, when I first visited eight years ago, the sight of a ‘foreigner’ was so foreign that several neighbors found excuses to stop by and find out what was going on.

As an outsider, what I love about Neercadu is that it still so traditional. The family house is one of the more modern ones in the area, but it still works in ways that are lost to most of us. Many things remain unchanged since Sandeep lived here over 20 years ago. The kitchen still uses a wood burning stove.

The well supplies all drinking and cooking water.

And food is still made the traditional way, without mixes and packets. This is the housekeeper grinding coconut and chilies into a chutney. The ingredients come from the garden.

The garden has almost everything needed to sustain – coffee, pepper, garlic and ginger. Papaya, mango, tapioca, plenty of bananas, coconuts and jackfruit.

Some things have changed in 20 years. The back plot is a paddy field that supplies rice, but it was recently sold when its upkeep proved too difficult for Amachee (Sandeep’s grandmother). The family used to also keep chickens and a cow, but now the shed is a garage. There was an outhouse, but now there are multiple bathrooms. And instead of doing the cooking, Amachee now has someone to cook for her.

As if answering a nostalgic call, Ava and Kayan instinctively picked up sticks from a tapioca tree and made a game of moving around stones, picking at the dirt and exploring the perimeters of the house. None of Sandeep’s family seemed perturbed by this. But I was worried about red ants, snakes, sharp objects… I suppose that’s what happens when a city girl goes to the village.

Sandeep beat a raw mango off a tree and we cut it up into tiny pieces to have with salt and red chili powder. It was tender, sweet, salty and sour. Amachee, who birthed five children on this land, said the dish is a favorite of pregnant women. Lucky us non-preggers can enjoy it too!



Filed under Food, India

Tasty is in the Tongue of the Taster

A reader of this blog knows we love food. But loving food comes with complications. Sandeep’s palate craves salty fatty meat. When he smells grilling meat he assumes the position of a hound. I am pescatarian and gluten-free. I love bread and cakes, but for health reasons, use all the will power I have to avoid gluten. I find joy in stinky things like cheeses. Ava likes things odorless and bland. Kayan prefers things sweet, but, bless his little taste buds, consumes whatever he sees.

More than anywhere we have travelled thus far, Kerala has highlighted that taste is a subjective matter. Malayalee food is heavily spiced and heavy in general. The palate here leans towards meats and fish left to rest in dense marinades and then thoroughly fried in coconut oil. The food is fabulous, but it asks a lot of our stomachs. After a few days of indulgence, we started craving simpler meals. We asked Sandeep’s parents’ housekeeper to make us grilled fish. Just salt and pepper please. The result was fried fish with salt and pepper. And turmeric. She couldn’t fathom cooking it ‘naked’. I took matters into my own hands, grilled a fillet and offered her a taste. She said she would gag if she had it because the taste of the fish was not masked enough. The horrified look on her face when we told her about sushi was priceless. I’m sure she is counting down the days until we leave so that she can reunite with her spice box.

Since the restaurant variety in Kottayam is limited, we were very excited to attend the annual Kottayam Food Festival. It’s a four day event highlighting the creativity of local chefs.

The first stall that excited us was “BBQ and Fries”, which had Arabian Chicken Wings on the menu. Sandeep probed as to what was in the marinade and was assured that it was “nothing but tomato sauce.” The wings arrived doused in a fiery red masala that had Kayan tearing up. We proceeded to the grilled seafood joint, where our grilled octopus was alarming burgundy and tasted the way it looked. What we quickly learned is that, even in the most avant garde culinary event of the year, the food is resolutely prepared according to local tastes.

While the taste of the food was not of the variety we expected, we had fun walking around and seeing the action. The chefs, such as this friendly batura (fried bread) vendor, were more than happy to show off their skills.

One entrepreneur was adding life to porathas (flat bread) by dramatically chopping them up into various vegetable and meat mixes.

While we didn’t have too large of a dinner, we did top the evening off with gelato, no masala or grease included. Ava’s highlight was joining the mini amusement park. (That band aid on her forehead is the result of a trip she had yesterday. I’ll update you on another post…but before you think we are negligent parents, see how happy she looks!)

We like to think of ourselves as adventurous eaters. We do try most things at least once (we tried crickets in Chiang Mai, after all!). Our challenge in Kerala has been the heaviness of the food, regardless of what dish we try. We have one more week here. Perhaps by then we will be licking the spice off our greasy fingers.


Filed under Food, India

Kerala Banana Bonanza

I asked Amma (Sandeep’s mom) to make her delicious banana bondas (similar in disposition to Duncan Donut Munchkins). After returning from her grocery run she said she didn’t find the right type of bananas. This confused me. Kerala is lined with stalls that sell nothing but bananas in all sorts of shapes, sizes and colors.

Before meeting Sandeep and getting to know about Kerala, I thought Chiquita was a the one and only banana species. I couldn’t stand the smell or taste of bananas. My friend Amanda still remembers the time I kicked her out of my car in college when she peeled open a yellow case. However, when I fell in love with a Malayalee, I was forced to expand my banana knowledge. I watched from afar as Sandeep consumed a few bananas every day. He would relish dried bananas from India, the stench of which sent me escaping to another room. The years soften me. I even learned how to make banana bondas because Sandeep looks so happy when he eats them. The truth is that I’ve come around and, once in a while, you can find me eating a banana.

The fertile South Indian state of Kerala alone is home dozens of banana species that grow year round. Each serves a purpose, which is why Amma said she couldn’t find the right one for the bondas. For example, palayankoda is the most versatile banana. This variety is yellow and about four inches long. It can be eaten as is when ripe, or sliced to make banana chips when raw. This is also the type sliced and dried in the sun, yielding the stinky snack that sent me running. The palayankoda is what Amma needed for the banana bonda. Njalipoovan are yellow and about three inches. They are mostly eaten as is. Kadalipazham are fat red fruits about five inches long and are generally taken to Hindu temples as offerings.

Every respectable house in Kerala has at least one banana plant. A true Malayalee uses it in its entirety. The banana flower, which needs to be cut off in order for the fruit to grow, is made into numerous dishes.

The leaves are used as plates. The inside of the trunk can used as a vegetable. The outer layer serves to decorate exteriors. The stalk and the peels are gifted to the local cow as treats. Malayalees have strong emotional attachments to the banana plant. As one Malayalee lamented to me, “The banana flower is a tragic thing, like a mother being killed to save her children.” When cooked, the purple flower tastes faintly like black button mushrooms and has the texture of cabbage.

In Kerala it is a crime to confuse a banana with a plantain. I have been frowned upon with great disdain over this mistake. Plantains are a whole other story.

Want to get closer to the Kerala banana bonanza? Try your hand at banana bondas.

Banana Bonda Recipe

Beware – This is Amma’s recipe. Like all her recipes, she gives me approximate measurements and frequently omits ingredients. This is why none of the dishes I try taste like hers. Either way, I have tried to be precise by recollecting my own bonda experiments. Bottom line – be creative.

1/2 cup all purpose flour (I use half rice and half tapioca when I make them gluten free)
1 large ripe banana, mashed and whipped (yes, you can use Chiqita if you don’t have access to palayankoda)
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
pinch of salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom seeds

Mix all of this in a bowl. If needed, add just enough water to create a thick batter. Spoon teaspoonfuls into a deep fryer. Remove when brown and dry on a wire rack or paper towels.


Filed under Food, India

The South Indian Restaurant Experience

When we go out for Indian food in New York, it’s usually to a South Indian restaurant. The food is native to Tamil Hindus, who have a wide variety of vegetarian dishes made from pulses, rice and various vegetable curries. These dishes are harder to replicate at home, so South Indian spots end up being the go-to dining choice for many Indians. Our restaurant of choice is Saravana Bhavan, on Lexington Avenue’s Murray Hill, also affectionately known as Curry Hill due to the aromas wafting from the area’s many Indian establishments. The New York eatery claims to be the child of the original Saravana Bhavan Hotel Restaurant in Chennai. We had a three hour layover recently in Chennai and decided to seize the opportunity to determine whether this is true.

Our doubts were put to rest when the place mat proudly claimed to have locations all around the world, one of which is on Lexington Avenue.

We ordered a dosa and thali, similar fare as we would in New York. We’re delighted to report that the food was remarkably similar to the New York outpost. All you New Yorkers who want a taste of true South Indian food – head to Lexington Avenue and 26th Street.

Here’s a short guide to eating at a South Indian restaurant. These pictures were taken at Anand, possibly the longest running South Indian restaurant in Kottayam, Kerala. In India you’ll likely have a choice of the AC (air-conditioned) section or regular dining. The food is the same, but the AC section a price premium. First, wash your hands as you are expected to eat with them. Only your right hand though, the left one is considered unclean. This is always a challenge for left-handed Sandeep.   A true South Indian restaurant will have a hand washing station (yes, Saravana Bhavan in New York has one too).

Getting through the menu may be a challenge, particularly when faced with odd items such as “Raw Rice” and vaguery like “Special Meals”.

The most traditional fare are dosas (roasted flat lentil pancakes), vadas (fried lentil donuts), and idlis (steamed rice and lentil patties).  All are served with sides of sambar (spiced lentil gravy) and various chutneys, including coconut and tomato. Thalis, AKA Special Meals or Set Meals, are a pre-selected assortment of various side dishes and rice. For the wow factor, order a paper masala dosa, a gravity defying thin pancake rolled around a mound of spiced potatoes.

A traditional South Indian meal is not complete without frothy coffee, brewed with milk and plenty of sugar. It’s served in a stainless steel cup nestled into a stainless steel bowl. Pour the coffee into the bowl and measure out smaller amounts to drink from the cup. This maneuver cools the coffee.

We don’t deny bribing our children. To get them through dinner we promise them dessert. They heartily ate their dosas and were rewarded with round ladoos – semolina roasted in clarified butter, boiled with sugar and rolled into a ball.

That ensured that they were just as excited we to return for another South Indian meal.


Filed under Food, India

A Visit to a Kerala Fish Market

Over 4,600 miles of sea lap the shores of India, resulting in coastal cuisine that is laden with fish. Fish species and preparation vary around the country, but one thing that binds coastal Indians is their insistence that their region knows fish best. Sandeep’s family is from the southern coastal state of Kerala and mine is a mix of Mumbaikers and Goans, both coastal. Our entire family is programmed to love fish – raw, fried, grilled, cured, dried, pickled – we’re up for anything with gills or shells.  For an entertaining and educational journey about fish in India, read Following Fish with an empty stomach. In it, Samanth Subramanian offers a colorful collection of investigative fish-oriented stories from around the country.

Kerala is particularly fish rich, as it has the added bonus of rivers and backwaters that sparkle with fresh water gills. No day is complete at Sandeep’s parents without fish. It’s acceptable fare for breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner.

Curious to get closer to the source, we decided to go fish shopping. We left at the crack of dawn, to make sure we got the freshest of the day’s catch. Even with Sandeep’s Malayalam, we knew we would stand out at the local market, so asked a neighbor to go with us. Uncle, as he is called, loves the bottle. So when we asked him last night to be our guide, it was clear that his ability to make it was correlated to the night’s consumption. He was up bright an early, along with his booming voice and confident gait. Uncle knows everyone in town and everyone in town knows not to take him for a ride. He’s the kind of guy you want on your side of a fish market negotiation.

The local fish market is in the pocket of a country road. It consists of about 20 stalls, with obediently stacked fish awaiting direction from enthusiastic vendors.

Each vendor specializes in one or two types of fish. Fish butchers and shellfish pickers are scattered among the stalls.

Uncle boisterously negotiated at every stall. The stalls organize their catch with freshest up front, and yesterday’s catch is discounted 25%. In a feat of nature, some fish were still moving, in rhythmic determination to make it back to the backwaters. This is clearly fresh stuff.

The stars today were pearl spot, snapper, sharks and several varieties of sardines and mackerel. We were overwhelmed at what to buy and let Uncle dictate the way. When we settled on a type of fish, Uncle checked the gills (ruby red) and eyes (firm and clear) and weighed the selection. The purchase was then passed on to butchers, who gut, de-bone, fillet and cube away on solid tree stumps.

We came home with two huge snappers ($8), two kilograms of sardines ($2), and one kilogram of freshly shucked crab meat ($1).  We wanted a break from masala-fried fish and fish curry, so decided on grilled snapper for dinner.

Tomorrow’s lunch will be flash fried sardines with a squeeze of lemon. Clams stir fried with coconut and tropical spices will grace the dinner table the day after. We can’t get enough fish.


Filed under Food, India