Gourmands and gastronomists!
Did you think that I would leave India behind without offering you at least a (digital) taste of the food on offer there? Impossible!
Every day as the sun begins to warm the streets, grocery vendors push their carts into place and shopkeepers unlock their metal grates or roll up their blue tarps and the cities come to life as the pekora and katchori wallahs adjust their vats of oil to medium-high and the snick and sizzle of their food sets tummies rumbling.
The local markets are things of wonder: wheels of cane sugar whose size rivals that of car tires; small boulders of salt in pink and white and delicate gray and black; mountains of pale green grapes and their indigo counterparts whose flesh is so juice-heavy and ripe that it threatens to burst through its skin, cartloads of bananas, freckled and blushing yellow under the sun; and sacks of tumeric and rice and cayenne and dried chillies resting in the shade.
And do you think you had a sweet tooth? Let me tell you, you do not. I happened to consider myself somewhat of an expert on all things candied and confectionary — until I came to India. One bite of a gulab jamun (a condensed-milk-based doughnut ball soaked for hours in saffron-flavoured sugar syrup) will show any foreigner right away that she knows nothing about having a real sweet tooth. Julabis (deep-fried curlicues of batter also basking in sugar syrup) and barfi (condensed milk and sugar squares, decked out in edible silver leaf) are equally willing to ruin your former reputation as a lover of all things sugar-filled and fattening. In India, if your teeth aren’t borderline aching when they meet these glucose-glutted delights, you probably have dentures — or lord knows, you’ll need them by the time your trip is over.
Perhaps I should also share with you the breaddy breakdown? Ladies and gents, let’s get honest: in India as elsewhere, not all carbohydrates are created equal. Any old amateur with access to flour, water, and salt can make a chapati, since you just smush the ingredients together, roll the dough into a flat circle, and then heat it up until both sides are browned and the bread has puffed up like a balloon — and there you have it! As a side dish in India, chapati is just as much of a staple as rice, and perhaps the country’s most humble carb-fix.
A step up from there is the parantha — essentially a chapati, but stuffed with all kinds of goodies (the most common being potato and onion but the undisputed best being cheese and garlic), which is fried in oil on both sides whereas chapati is cooked dry.
And then there is naan. Now, India is a place that’s fairly well-versed in the art of scans and cons. Is the biggest one credit card forgery? The-museum-is-closed-so-maybe-I’ll-jut-take-you-around-town-to-my-clothing-shop? The con where tourists are persuaded to buy ‘precious’ stones at a ‘great’ price so that they can sell them at home for a huge profit, only to find they’ve been doled out coloured glass? No. The biggest, most unforgiveable scam in India is the practice of certain restaurants of passing off extra-large chapati as naan, and charging you accordingly. Unforgiveable. Because true naan is a beautiful, beautiful thing: the dough is both softened and lightened by adding curd (yoghurt) to it, then the dough is left to rise before its glorious transformation inside a tandoori oven. The result is pure heaven: a puffy, rich oval of flatbread, barely crisp on the outside and pillowy within, lightly drizzled with oil or clarified butter on one side, and the perfect accompaniment for any dish, or for the carbaholics (i.e. yours truly) just plain excellent as a dish on its own.
Other notable contenders on the trip included:
Aloo ghobi: a few of you may find the name of this dish familiar because I tended to cook a heavily-adapted version of it back home that more or less bore no resemblance to the actual dish by this name. So let me reclaim the glory of the original aloo ghobi — cubed potato cooked to tender perfection and slightly crunchy cauliflower are married in a tumeric-heavy sauce of pure gold, touched up with onions, garlic, and seeded tomatoes for a gorgeously filling main.
Paneer masala: Sam’s favourite entrée and a hearty contender — paneer (a creamy and mild Indian cheese that’s a cross between tofu and bocconcini) cubes soaking in a hot bath of tomatoes, onions, and garlic. The dish is infused with all the spices that make masala glorious: ginger, pepper, cardamom, chilli, cumin, coriander, and aniseed.
Vegetable kofta: potatoes painstakingly mashed by hand are met with a healthy dose of garlic, cheese, and onions, then the whole mixture is rolled into either a cylinder or cone, battered and deep fried, and then served swimming in a masala tomato sauce. Always needs a side of rice for soaking up the gorgeous sauce.
Bombay mix: fellow snackers, you should probably know that India is the undisputed world leader in all things crunchy, crispy, salted, spiced, and satisfying. Nobody knows the midafternoon munch better than Indians do. And what could be better than heading up to one of the chaat wallahs in the middle of the day and choosing a large paper cone of your favourite crunchables, all served warm? They’ve got peanuts and roasted chickpeas and puffed rice and dried crunchy noodles and toasted lentils and just about anything else you might want, all served up in spice rub and salt.
Thukpa: so, technically this is a Nepalese soup, but Nepalese food is otherwise normally overlooked because — let’s face it — lentils and rice are lacking in the culinary thrill department. By contrast, thukpa is ready to change the face of Nepalese food forever, because you would be hard pressed to find a heartier, more satisfying soup for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Julienned cabbage, tomato, celery, and onion are paired with ginger, garlic, spinach, and — the real treat — noodles, in a salty broth flavoured with soy sauce and tumeric. I’ve had a lot of soup on this trip (just ask Vietnam), but thukpa outshines them all.
Thali: second-last but the exact opposite of least, we’ve got thali. A thali platter is a backpacker’s dream — gigantic portions of food for unbelievably low prices. Depending on how hungry you are (or the size of your India-increased paunch) a thali can feed anywhere between one and three people. It has everything. Rice? Check. Dal (curried lentils)? Check. Chickpea soup? Check. Aloo ghobi (or some other potato curry)? Check. Some curd to cut the spice? Check. Chapati? Check. Are dessert and a drink almost always included? Yes. Because when you have that much food on your plate, the only thing you could possibly need is more food on your plate.
Masala chai: Is it weird to become emotional when discussing a cup of tea? Because already I miss those little ten-cent cups of chai more than almost anything else in India. The humble chai stall consisted almost always of a kerosene tank with a bubbling saucepan on top, and hordes of men (men in bellbottoms and fuzzy sweatervests, men in leather jackets, men leaning over motorbikes, men in dhotis or kurtas, men in business suits) hanging about, all chatting and bickering and nagging and teasing each other with a cup of steaming chai ready to cling to their moustaches at any minute. And masala chai is a thing of beauty: cardamom and ginger, cinnamon and cloves, bay leaves and star anise all simmering in a rich milk and brightened with sugar. No two cups were ever the same.
My friends! I must leave you now before the puddles of drool collecting at your lips threaten to shortcircuit your keyboards. After all, Moroccan food and tea in all their glory beckon! But I hope you’re both well and well-fed.
From India (in stomach) with love,