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Madras Cafe (Rishikesh, India)

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Address: Ram Jhula / Tel: 0135 2433291

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      23.01.2011 20:57
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      Not so much a meal as an experience

      ~The Blind Faith of Travellers~

      My sister Aileen still believes in the wisdom of guidebooks but unfortunately that doesn't extend to actually carrying them around with her. She'll insist on walking around for absolutely ages in search of a restaurant that's in her guidebook even though she can't actually remember what the place was called or where it was located. It's not brought us to blows yet, but it's heading that way. I expected that we would rub each other up the wrong way during our two week trip to India back in October but it was only her hunt for guidebook restaurants that annoyed me - quite a relief really and certainly an improvement over looking for restaurants in Salisbury when we go to visit our parents - tension on that front has escalated a numbers of times.

      Enough on the sticky topic of sibling rivalry and back to India. In the hippy-haven of Rishikesh it's not easy to find restaurants in the conventional sense of the word. The vast majority of visitors to the city are chowing down on a lentil stew or perhaps surviving for a month on fresh air and a single leaf of holy basil at their ashram or chugging a macrobiotic cleansing smoothie between yoga classes. Aside from street food that looks tempting but might land you in bed and the bathroom for a couple of days, we were really struggling to find somewhere to eat during our visit.

      We'd just been down to the banks of the Ganges for the nightly Ganga Aarti ceremony and all the singing and baffling worshipful behaviour had helped us work up an appetite. We had crossed back over the river to start the long haul back up the hill to our hotel thinking we'd have to eat there when Aileen let out a whelp of delight and a squeal of recognition. "That one's in the guidebook" she said and dragged us in to a scruffy looking little place called the Madras Cafe. Much to my amazement, despite being little more than a road-side shack it was also listed on several websites and so I was able to get it added to the database and write about it.

      ~The Madras Cafe~

      Inside it was soon apparent that 'being in the book' meant that lots of other tourists were also in the same place as well as several Indian families, although most of these seemed to be southern Indian families who had also travelled a long way to get to the city and had been lured in by the promise of the inclusion of South Indian dishes on the menu.

      The restaurant building is very basic and looks like it might fall down in a high wind but the smiley owner seems to be keeping it standing by sheer force of personality alone. You just feel that the roof wouldn't DARE to cave in on him when he's just so darned smiley.

      The plastic coated menus offered rather an extensive list of dishes for such a small place and if you couldn't find enough on the card then there were supplementary dishes advertised on sheets of paper pinned to the walls including some hippy-friendly 'specials'. A propensity to push 'Himalayan sprouts' was clear when the guy tried to persuade us to give up our veg biryani in favour of something similar but full of his freshly sprouted sprout-things. He was adamant we would love his sprouts and it took a very forceful explanation that our tourist tummies could only deal with fully cooked food to get him to give up on the sprout-push.

      ~Our Meal~

      Joyce ordered some hot Chinese noodles, my sister Aileen ordered the vegetarian thali and hubby and I went for our usual 'when you can't be bothered to think too much just go for' veg biryani and tadka dal. We all had sweet lime sodas which were delivered with origami folded paper napkins wrapped round them. This is a source of much annoyance to me because I can't help thinking there are bigger problems for the intellectual might of India to solve than how to wrap a glass in a napkin. I'd like to suggest they solve the problem of how to stop your plastic straw leaping out of your fizzy drink.

      You might have noticed something missing. Aileen and Joyce plus food but minus beer - surely something must be wrong, but no, this is reality. Rishikesh is a place of pilgrimage which means no meat and no booze - and no exceptions. I'm still wondering how we got omelette in our hotel the next day since eggs are considered non-veg but I didn't think to ask until after we'd moved on to the next city.
      Husband Tony decided to continue his quest to check out the toilets of India and was told that the restaurant had no water but the owner took him off down the street to somewhere smelly and unpleasant. Firstly lets address the issue that we'd just ordered food in a restaurant with no water - what the heck were we thinking of? What were they using to cook with - magic river water? Was there any connection between this parlous situation and the low level of the water in the corner of the room aquarium? And what were they cleaning the dishes with? I tried not to let my imagination run away with me.

      When we quizzed Tony about where he'd been he said it was 'clean' but only a two out of ten. We've since come to realise that 'clean' doesn't mean 'not smelly' - it's Tony shorthand for anywhere that isn't literally coated in sh*t. I predict his application to become a Michelin hotel inspector wouldn't get far.

      ~Good Food Oddly Delivered~

      The food started to arrive - one dish at a time with big gaps between. Joyce's veg noodles were a little mountain of spicy delight and with liberal application of the chilli sauce bottle they eventually reached the oesophagus-searing characteristics that she was seeking. Aileen's thali tray (a metal dish with several veg curries in little pots) was an interesting mixture of dishes but unlike many restaurants where one thali could have easily fed the four of us, she wasn't overwhelmed by the quantity and struggled to balance up the dishes because the rice didn't arrive for quite a while. Our veg biryani wasn't the biggest or most generous portion but was tasty, slightly green in colour like a student cook's experiment and had a good mix of finely chopped veg in it. The dal was yellow and delicious with the lentils succulent but not mushy. It's perhaps unfair to criticise the portion sizes when they were all entirely adequate for one person - one pale tourist in particular - but our previous destinations had been more inclined to 'Indian portions' - massive mounds of food that would take a lifetime of practice to get through.Despite the enthusiasm of the owner to sell us desserts and drinks, we called it a day after our main courses and headed back to the hotel where we happily polished off banana pancakes and lassi as we sat looking out over the Ganges.

      The total bill for four of us at the Madras Cafe was a little under 600 rupees - about £9, split four ways. You can't really grumble about that.

      ~How to find it - if you also left your guidebook in the hotel~

      If you find yourself hungry in Rishikesh, the Madras Cafe is on right bank of the Ganges. Cross the Ram Jhula bridge, turn left and keep your eyes peeled. If you reach the auto-rickshaw and car park, then you've gone too far.

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