Gourmet Traveller

It’s Time to Say Namaste Stockholm!

Posted: June 7, 2015 at 12:55 pm   /   by   /   comments (0)

You’ll find a little bit of India in nooks of Stockholm, but that is not the only reason for you to go to the Swedish capital to recharge your batteries

WHEN you’re at the Nobel Museum (http://www.nobelmuseum.se/) in Stockholm, a treasure house of inspirational knowledge despite its cramped location in the Old Town (), you cannot miss an old Atlas bicycle perched above the other material possessions gifted by the laureates, some known, some lost in the footnotes of the history of science.

It is the bicycle that Amartya Sen used to go to villages to weigh children (the weighing scale would sit in the basket attached to the handlebar) so that he could have the raw data he needed for what turned out to be his paradigm-altering work on poverty and inequality. Sen’s peers and students would wonder why he needed to make so much effort to get data that could be procured easily from a government agency, but for the young economist, his bicycle visits to villages offered him insights that statistics could never give. He took the bicycle with him wherever he went in the world just to keep feeling inspired to dig deeper than others for knowledge that would transform people’s lives.

As you step out of the Nobel Museum, a short walk away from the Royal Palace (http://www.kungahuset.se/), whose room count of 608 is one notch higher than the 607 at Buckingham Palace, you eyes will be drawn to two German-Dutch cheerily hued gabled houses, dating back to 1648, built upon medieval cellars. The sign Kaffekoppen (The Coffee Cup) tells you that this is where travellers come to rest their weary feet and lose themselves in a cup of coffee. The coffee shop (http://www.cafekaffekoppen.se/) with an ornamental stone portal built by a German mason in the mid-1600s was restored in 1905 and renovated in 1992, and has ever since been one of Gamla Stan’s go-to destinations. Next to it is its sister concern, the Chokoladkoppen, where you can have rejuvenating hot chocolate while admiring the medieval masonry inside.

But I forsook the seductive welcome of this coffee shop steeped in history to look at the other end of the busy square that once served as the medieval town’s marketplace as well as an open court where criminals received their punishments. A short walk up one of Gamla Stan’s cobbled-stone back streets led me to a door crowned by a smartly designed sign that read ‘Chai Khana’ (http://www.chaikhana.se/). This is where Stockholm’s literati drop in for afternoon tea with cakes that make your stomach rumble in anticipation. The neatly arranged cans of tea, sourced from across the world, the neat marble-topped wooden tables and the familiar fabrics all around you point to an Indian hand and a sharp eye for detail. An Indian tea house in a part of Stockholm that dates back to the 13th century?

I had met the owner of Chai Khana, the mild-mannered Ashok Kapoor, who has spent 32 years in Sweden, at the Indian Ambassador’s residence in a fashionable part of Stockholm named Villagatan, which was once home to Ingmar Bergman and the Swedish maker of safety matches as well as one of last century’s most brilliant swindlers, Ivar Kreuger, whose 1932 suicide sank personal fortunes worth billions of dollars on both sides of the Atlantic.

As we savoured Ambassador Banashri Bose Harrison’s exuberant hospitality, and spotted familiar faces from Delhi (including the surprisingly friendly Maneka Gandhi, contrary to her media portraits, and the ever-gracious Shovana Narayan and Ambassador Herbert Traxl), Kapoor said he came to Sweden as a modern dancer, but as he touched the 40s, he realised his body could no longer take the demands of his profession, so he settled down to a corporate life. He worked for Reuters and Dow Jones, and went on to become the managing director of an IT firm (you’ll find Indians in every position in Swedish IT companies or Indian offshore entities such as L&T Infotech), but he was soon overcome by the dream he had been nursing since his youth. It was the dream to own an international tea shop on the lines of the one that is best-known in the world – the Mariage Freres of Paris, which was quite close to where he lived when he was training to be a dancer.

Sanjoo Malhotra, who grew up in Kolkata but made Sweden his home 18 years ago, is the man who binds these little gems of Stockholm’s Indian community. A couple of weekends back, on the eve of President Pranab Mukherjee’s visit to Sweden (the first by an Indian Head of State), Malhotra got Stockholm talking about India when more than 12,000 people (a mammoth turnout in a city of 9.15 lakh souls!) showed up at Kungstradgarden (King’s Garden) in the heart of the Swedish Capital.

The occasion was Namaste Stockholm, a meticulously planned annual celebration of Indian culture, cuisine and crafts, put together by Malhotra’s event management company, India Unlimited (http://indiaunlimited.se/namaste/). It got Swedes in yoga gear show up in their hundreds early morning for a spot of stretching by the central fountains of the historic park, which started as the royal kitchen garden in 1430.

Like many Indians in Stockholm, Malhotra, a hotel management graduate who got introduced to Sweden during his stint with Sita Travels, started his second life as a student of International Business and one of his fondest early memories was being invited to attend the glittering Nobel Prize dinner in the year when Amartya Sen got the ‘Sveriges Riksbank (Swedish Central Bank) Prize in Economic Sciences in the Memory of Alfred Nobel’ (yes, officially, it’s not a Nobel, though it has been treated as one since it was first awarded in 1969!).

The dinner has been held since 1930 (seven years after it was completed) at the Blue Hall of the City Hall (http://international.stockholm.se/the-city-hall/), a 106m-tall exposed-brick structure dominating the city’s skyline with three golden crowns on top. The invitees add up to 1,300 people (the only ‘VIPs’ not to be invited as a matter of policy are leaders of Sweden’s right-wing, ultra-nationalist party) – including 250 students. It is such a tight fit that each guest gets only 70 cm of seating area for the pre-plated meal whose menu is kept a secret till it is served. As a result of the crush, the pre-dinner champagne and canapés are served on the tables when the guests settle down – there’s no room for the guests to unwind after they arrive from the awards ceremony held at the Concert Hall some distance away and savour their hors d’oeuvres.

After dinner, the guests retire for a dance to the Golden Hall at the top, one of the most fabulous public spaces, that too in the headquarters of a city municipality, whose north wall is covered by a fabulous mosaic, pieced together with 17 million pure gold pieces from 1911 to 1923, of the mythological Queen of Mälaren receiving homage from the West and the East, from where the tributaries come riding majestic elephants and rickety camels.

The Nobel dinner is held every year on December 10, the birth anniversary of Alfred Nobel, which is a particularly cold, dark and gloomy time of the year in Sweden. Surprisingly, they may live in a country that is cold and forbidding for much of the year, and their crime thrillers may be as dark as the Nordic winter afternoon, but the Swedes are naturally warm-hearted people.

That’s one quality they share with us, apart from their mastery over the English language. It’s easy for Indians to strike up a conversation with a Stockholm resident during fika, a coffee break (at 11 a.m. or 3 p.m.) with an irresistible cinnamon bun or a carrot cake with walnuts as accompaniment. Like the one I had with Carin Christensen, my guide, at the Bla Porten (Blue Door) cafe, where her father was a jazz musician in the 1950s. Described as Stockholm’s most romantic café (http://www.timeout.com/stockholm/restaurants-cafes/venue/1%3A21614/bla-porten), located strategically in the Djurgården neighbourhood, which is famous for its famous museums, Bla Porten’s other claim to fame is that it is next door to the prominent art gallery, Liljevalchs Konsthall.

Amartya Sen staged yet another comeback as our conversation drifted along, impervious to the dark, sharp-eyed crows waiting for us to leave so that they could dig the leftovers on our coffee trays. With her impeccable English accent she owes to the days she spent at Christ’s College, University of Cambridge, Carin recalled how the economist, then a Master at Trinity College, Cambridge, practised his Nobel acceptance speech in front of a gathering of Scandinavian students who had been invited to listen to him. Carin was in that gathering and quite impressed by the professor’s oratory, though she knew little about who he was. Even in Stockholm, a little bit of India follows you.

— This is a revised and slightly longer version of my article that appeared in the Travel Mail section of Mail Today on June 7, 2015. All the photographs that accompany this article have been shot by the author and they cannot be reproduced in any publication, website or blog without his prior written permission.