Dal Lake is a beautiful but surreal place and one of its most bizarre experiences is the daily floating market. To get there, you’re bundled from a cosy houseboat bed while it’s still dark, tipped into a waiting shikara and swaddled in a pile of blankets.
At first there’s no sign of any life, let alone a bustling market; just the soft plop of oars on the water’s surface. Then, gradually, from mosques along the shore and the town beyond, the sound of a thousand prayers builds to a great wall of sound.
Just as you’re about to fall into the deepest hypnotic state, through the mist appears someone whose boat’s paintwork proclaims him to be “Mr Wonderful Flower Man”, a youth for whom the word “groovy” seems to cover every eventuality. We are “groovy”, his boat is “groovy” and his flowers, which he’s waving madly in our faces, are definitely “groovy”.
The appearance of the persistent Mr Wonderful is a sign you’ve reached the entrance to the market. The man will stop at nothing to be the first to greet tourists and you may find it impossible to proceed further until you’re the proud owner of a posy for your houseboat and a selection of unspecified Himalayan bulbs.
Sweet memories: (left) Mix together coconut, chocolate chips and condensed milk; and place heaped teaspoons on a baking tray. Photographs by Priyanka Parashar/Mint
If you do make it into the market there will be a dozen or so bobbing shikaras, each with a modest pile of greens in the bow; spinach, onions, perhaps a few lotus roots. The resigned looking, pheran-shrouded hawkers, who outnumber customers by about 10 to one, seem to offload most of their produce by bartering with each other. The wheels of commerce are oiled by the floating chaiwallah dispensing strong cups of the local brew, kahva.
Most of the morning’s brief trade is conducted in the first, flimsy light of day; then, as the sun starts to twinkle on the water, the boats disappear quickly under the bridge and back to their villages.
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Perhaps the last thing you might expect to see is a floating cake shop. More surprising still are the cakes on sale—from a metal box appears an incongruous stash: breads which look like bagels, which I later learn are a local morning bread called tsachvoru, handmade chocolates and something which instantly transports me back to childhood: macaroons.
Long before Laduree was thrilling the world with its “macaron caramel beurre salé”, the English were making the more rustic “macaroons”. Recipes for these date back to the 1700s, traditionally using ground almonds but more recently, dried coconut. The British loved their little macaroons (often topped with a garish glacé cherry) so much they stuffed some in their trunks en route to the colonies, where they now pop up in bakeries everywhere from Old Delhi to Srinagar.
Sadly, the traditional macaroon has fallen out of favour in Britain, probably finding it hard to compete with the ubiquitous cupcake. These days you’re much more likely to find them in Kashmir than Kettering. Which is a pity because a more straightforwardly cheering mouthful of sweetness is impossible to imagine.
Note: Most English macaroon recipes use whisked egg whites and sometimes flour to give a more biscuit-y bite but here for the Piece of Cake egg-free series, I’ve used only condensed milk and vanilla extract to bind together the coconut.
Makes about 18
200g flaked, dried coconut
225g condensed milk
1 tsp real vanilla extract
A pinch of salt
50g dark chocolate chips
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Put the coconut, condensed milk, vanilla extract, salt and chocolate chips in a large bowl and mix well until everything is completely blended.
Take heaped teaspoons of the mixture and drop on to the parchment paper. Lightly shape them—I remember the macaroons of my childhood had pointy tops, but they can be any shape—and press to bind together gently.
Place in the oven and bake for about 10 minutes. They should be golden brown but watch them because they burn easily.
Pamela Timms is a Delhi-based journalist and food writer. She blogs at Eatanddust.com
Write to Pamela at firstname.lastname@example.org