Monday, December 10, 2007

The Punjabi Family Mela.

Yesterday morning, as I slowly finished my mug of coffee, I scanned the events listings in the back of the BK magazine. I'm living in a city that is still strange to me, and one of my personal goals is to search out new experiences in order to get a better sense of it. Nothing caught my eye until I came across a minor post: "Punjabi Family Mela. International Family Fun Fair in a Punjabi cultural environment, with bargain shopping, fantastic food and games." While the words "fantastic food" intrigued me, I was equally put off by the words "family fun." I read the advertisement to Bordeaux, and within minutes he had decided that we were definitely going.

We took a taxi, and after some confusion, arrived at the gates of the Sikh International School. We were a little early, but most of the activities were already set up. At the center of the grounds was a stage, watched over by rows and rows of empty plastic chairs. There was a large grassy field, on which were scattered a bouncy castle, a ferris wheel, and several booths offering carnival games. There were two uninspired gift stalls, one offering brightly colored plush toys, and the other with a range of kitsch Indian products. Most significantly for us, however, there was an impressive range of food stands being operated by a number of Indian restaurants from around Bangkok and Thailand. So since we weren't in the market for incense, and didn't feel like playing 'human foosball', we took the opportunity to spend the afternoon enjoying some delicious, cheap, Indian food.

For our first course, we sampled two different kinds of chat. One was a plate of thin pastry puffs, which could be filled with a sugary potato and chickpea dressing, and dipped in a sour-minty sauce. The second was a mix of puffed rice cereal, tomato, crackers, and spring onions, mixed in with the same minty sauce.

Within an hour, the crowd had grown steadily. Hundreds of Sikh men and women strolled the school's gardens, stopping to chat in the shade, and encouraging their children to go play. Bordeaux and I explored the games area once a crowd had developed. The human foosball court was still abandoned, but a few lone riders were taking part in the rather desolated amusements. A surprisingly large group had gathered at the "Dunk the Guy" booth, however.

Worn out by the midday sun, we decided to return to the shade and try a more substantial meal. The offerings at the stand catered by Bawarchi looked particularly delicious. They had a large team of cooks working at the grills, making bright red chicken and lamb tikka. We ordered two dishes from them: a Sikh tikka, and a dish of paneer and roasted vegetables. Both were served on plastic plates, with two large drops of chili and mint sauces. The Sikh tikka was a little strange- the lamb had a slightly rubbery texture, and a strong kaffir lime flavor that made it taste more Thai than Indian. The paneer, however, was incredible. The spicy sauce that coated the cottage cheese was delicious, the paneer had a nicely grilled flavored, and the tomatoes, onions and peppers were perfectly roasted.

But as good as the paneer was, the highlight of the day were the beverages we tried. Earlier that day, upon our arrival, a man working at Ali Baba had beckoned us, and recommended that we try the Badam Charbat (pictured left), which he described as an almond drink. It had a thinner texture than I expected, more like soda the milk. While I could detect the flavor the almonds, the strongest taste was the rich spice of cardamom. It was perfectly refreshing for the already hot day, and started the mela off on an invitingly exotic note.

Later in the afternoon, as the heat began to rise, we each ordered a mango milkshake (pictured right) from the same stand. We took them with us as we sit in the audience of the stage show. Earlier that day, the stage had been occupied by several impressive Punjabi singers, and a group of teenage girls performing a lackluster folkloric dance. As we sat down on the wamr plastic seats, a team of teenage boys were just finishing their dance routine. As they walked off the stage, they were replaced by two hiply styled men, who announced it was time for the children to play a game. They called all the children in the audience to come to the stage- resulting in dozens of shy, protesting young girls trying to hide next to their mothers. The men on stage admonished them for not coming up, and their parents tried to harangue them into going. One poor girl two rows in front of us was urged by her mother and aunt, and eventually admonished by an unrelated women seated nearby. We sipped the creamy mango shakes, enjoying the relief from the heat, and grateful that we weren't there with our families.

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