Would I like to accompany my partner on a trip to Bangalore? It took about two heartbeats to dismiss pressing work demands and who would look after the children. Go to the most veggie friendly place on earth? I knew this would be a chance of a lifetime trip - I have never been to India - so I organised for my partner to hot foot it to the Visa office while I booked our jabs.
Bangalore, is the capital of the Indian state of Karnataka. Located on the Mysore Plateau in southwestern Karnataka, Bangalore has an estimated population of 6.1 million. Situated at 3,000ft, it has a pleasant warm to hot climate all year round and not the blistering heat associated with lower lying areas. It is the Silicon Valley of India - along with the saris and turbans, the next most common site are laptops. But don't let this put you off. The computer nerds are safely in their offices by day and you more or less have the hotel to yourself.
After a ten hour direct flight from Heathrow, we arrived to the balmy heat of Bangalore. The hotel taxi was there to whisk us to our 5 star accommodation, set in 25 tropical acres - the Taj West End. I would never normally be able to afford such luxury, but with breakfast, snack dinner and complimentary evening drinks included, it represented exceptional value considering the facilities.
In the United Kingdom, hotel restaurants are not usually much to crow about. Airport hotels are particularly poor. (See our Madrid trip report for details) In Bangalore, this would appear to be the opposite. Hotels cater for the many demanding executives that are increasingly visiting on business, from all areas of the world, so have to offer the food to match. In this they succeed admirably. All restaurants are also ridiculously cheap, by UK standards.
Every restaurant in Bangalore has a vegetarian menu. It is usually listed first and the meat and fish is named "non vegetarian". Our room rate included breakfast in the Mynt restaurant - open 24 hours (to cope with the different time zones people are working in) For breakfast and lunch, they provided a show stopping array of food, such as I have never seen before.
The breakfast provision consisted of four counters of hot
food from different cuisines - Western, Lebanese, Indian - all the veggie
options being situated to the right of each display - so about 6 to 8
options at each counter - plus cold provision of about 30 varieties of
fresh fruit, assorted cheeses, numerous bread and croissants, a choice
of about 15 freshly squeezed juices, cereals for the terminally boring
and much more that I just cannot remember. In the unlikely event that
whatever you wanted was not on show, you could ask the many chefs on hand
to make it for you.
It was here that the superlatives start - my best breakfast ever. Idli - difficult to describe because we don't have an equivalent - but it is made from rice and very light. You spoon a lentil Dahl over it. Yes, very odd for breakfast, but surprisingly delicious and puts baked beans well in the shade. With this I had paratha to order - again very light, not at all greasy and curdled yoghurt and Jasmine tea. I then had a plate of mango (it's the season and taste divine - when we get them they are old and stringy) papaya, fresh figs, melon, pomegranate and baby banana. I would defy any veggie not to be impressed with the food on offer for breakfast here.
The other restaurant on site is the Indian Barbecue. This overlooks the pool and is run by head chef Grumit, who taught me how to make biryani. It was here I had my best biryani ever (the one I helped to make naturally) and the most delicious tandoori paneer. We had several meals here and they were all superb. Indian cooking is very labour intensive and time consuming. Also the kitchens are incredibly hot. The outside temperature was in the high nineties, then the heat from the ovens and finally the tandoor oven made it almost unbearable. So no shouting. Everyone is quiet and calm and getting on with their work. Gordon Ramsay take note. Unlike the UK, where I usually have to order a selection of side dishes, here each dish is treated seriously and each dish tastes quite different - it's not just different vegetables in the same sauce. They also served salted lassi to die for.
Blue Ginger is the Vietnamese restaurant on site and has to have the most beautiful décor I have seen. For starters, it is open on three sides and positioned above a man made lagoon with trickling water and waterfalls and tropical plants. Inside it is bare polished wood, with brightly coloured silks covering the cushions and an immaculately dressed and beautiful greeter in national dress. At night, candles are lit and with the twinkling lights reflecting on the water, it is truly magical. The food wasn't bad either! In fact this restaurant has won numerous awards and I imagine if my limited experience is anything to go by, competition is stiff.
We did venture outside the hotel, but would have been quite happy to eat at the three I have already mentioned. Leela Palace is a five star luxury hotel near the airport. Again it has its own superb restaurants. Sorry to be repetitive, but it was here I had the best veggie Chinese ever. The evening starts with a maharajah, no less, opening your taxi door for you and leading you up the marble steps to your restaurant entrance. Three paths diverge, one to each restaurant. Nearby, a traditional Indian band is playing and already you are in the mood. With twinkling candles and a balmy evening, we enjoyed sesame toasts, mushrooms in plum sauce, noodles, mushroom crackers, fragrant rice, stewed spinach and marinated tofu. Portions were generous and we were greedy. With drinks, this extravagance cost us under £30.
If Chinese is not to your taste then right next door to Zen is the Jamavar Indian Restaurant. This is reputed to be one of the top Indian restaurants in the country. We didn't get time to try it, but we will next time!
Lunch at the Samarakand is an experience. You drink from Copper goblets and sit on low cushioned chairs. The decor is wonderful and the place is very atmospheric. Having been to Samarkand in Uzbekistan I can tell you that this place is pretty authentic, but the food is better here. It's supposed to serve the best Biryani in India, but I only found this out later, after I'd had the mushroom curry. Another excuse to go back!
The Karavalli is another great restaurant. We had a lovely evening here with Indian friends, both strict vegetarians. They said it was amongst their favourite restaurants. It specialises in South Indian cuisine, which is a little spicier than North Indian. It reminded me of being in someone's house. The food is homecooked and the courtyard is lovely, particularly on the balmy evening we were there. All the food is brought to the middle of the table to be shared, and instead of plates you eat off a banana leaf.
A Lebanese lunch at Mynt provided my next superlative. This is buffet style and the choice, as I mentioned for breakfast, is no less impressive at lunchtime. Excellent babaganoush and houmous, lovely fresh pitta, olives, minted rice, aubergine with spinach... my dictaphone cuts off at this stage - imaginary hands indicate no more - I need to get on with the serious business of eating. I had baklava and mint tea to follow but the pastry chefs excel here and I could have chosen from at least 30 other options, including a gelatine free cheesecake, suitable for veggies, which I did sample on one day. Including drinks, this cost around £9 a head. They do a bargain Sunday brunch which is very popular, for about a fiver!
Near the Blue Ginger, in the grounds of the Hotel and positioned on small stilts, is the hotel bar Blue. When it gets dark after 7pm only candle light and a few dim lights are used. This is common everywhere and after a while you get used to reading the menu by the light of your mobile phone. They have a Happy Hour (and a half) at this bar from 6.30pm to 8pm for hotel residents. I thought it meant one free drink but it was only on the penultimate day I discovered we could have complimentary drinks for the whole period. This included champagne and cocktails. It's enough to make a non drinker weep. However, non drinking is common in India, so there were plenty of "mocktails" from which to choose. If you like dated 80's music, you could spend all evening here.
Bangalore had the best food we have ever eaten - and we have both lived abroad and travelled extensively - but it was the people that made it special. I know we were staying in a luxury hotel, but even when we went out and about, I felt really comfortable with these friendly, dignified and hard working people. A week in Bangalore could be the holiday of a lifetime and you don't need to be seriously rich to enjoy it. If part of your enjoyment on holiday is good food and you like Indian food - I can think of no better place to visit. If you want to sunbathe, make sure you avoid the monsoon period. We had a few hours of heavy rain, but it quickly dried up. (Mid May) The rain gets heavier as the monsoon progresses but has usually gone by October.
British Airways fly from Heathrow to Bangalore and back every day except Friday, when they service the plane. Tickets costs around £500. You need a tourist Visa (around £30) and various injections (my surgery does not charge). Malaria tablets are recommended. Being at high altitude, we were not bothered by mozzies until our flight back when they greeted us at Bangalore airport, which is not air conditioned. The Taj West End is magical. Our room rate included a luxury room with air conditioning overlooking the pool, airport transfer, breakfast, complimentary Happy hour and evening snack at the Blue Bar, use of the pool with attendant and towels, health club with treatment rooms (manicure £2.50), gym and floodlit tennis court. The staff are highly attentive and nothing is too much trouble. It is the only place where I have stayed and not had one complaint.
I'm saving up for my next trip already.