I came to India wondering if I’d starve for two weeks. Between worrying about catching a nasty case of Dehli Belly (more on that later) I’ve always been a wimp about hot, spicy food—when we’re talking about food that’s too spicy, Fruit Loops are about as hot and wild as I can handle and only if I’m using low fat milk.
Yes, go ahead and mock me. I can take it.
However, the big bonus in India is that in hotels and restaurants it’s very popular to offer a buffet which is completely perfect for getting to know the cuisine. When we weren’t eating at home at Mom and Dad’s apartment we’d be in line at the buffet sampling things like hara moong dal, chicken biriyani, saffron pulau, chicken sukka, mutton nilgiri kurma, coriander noodles and gobi kofta.
While India has people everywhere, rubbing up against each other as far as the eye can see, in most restaurants and hotels we went there were few patrons and more food than anyone could possibly eat. The wait staff would accompany me through the line, politely explaining each item until I started to get a feel for some of the vocabulary so that I could tell what to expect when I ladled a small dab of something on my plate.
The key is to understand some of the words (duh). For example, "sukka" means dry, so any dish with sukka in it will be dry and not saucy. "Gobi" is cauliflower and "kofta" is spheres or meatball shapes. Hence "gobi kofta" is cauliflower mashed and made into balls. And it was very good by the way. Here are a few other tips:
Dal (rhymes with stall)
This is the word for lentils and there are more colors and varieties than you can imagine. Pink, red, brown, yellow, green—they’ve got it and it all tastes good. It was typically one of my favorite things on the menu and it tastes something like a good black bean soup or hearty split pea.
The standard flavor for food in India it can mean many things. Curry is at the same time an herb, a spice medley and a type of dish incorporating the spice combo. Curry typically contains other flavors such as coriander (the seed form of cilantro though the Indians call both types coriander) turmeric, cumin, chilies and peppers and all sorts of other spicy stuff. There is green curry, red curry, curry paste, and curry powder depending on what you’re cooking and what country is represented but if I were to be honest I’d say that to my heat-sensitive palate it all tastes the same and it’s all too hot for the flavor to get through. Though feel free to disagree.
Nan (as in "non"-sequitur?--Hey, don't laugh it's all I could think of)
Indian bread that’s baked by flattening out a tortilla-like dough and pressing it to the wall of a clay oven where it cooks much like a tortilla and tastes—surprise, surprise—much like a tortilla. I happen to love tortillas so this got two enthusiastic thumbs up. There are other forms of bread such as puri and roti but none as good as nan and buttered nan is even better. Because calories are what make food taste good.
Ghee (rhymes with me)
The chief oil used in Indian cooking it’s basically a clarified butter in which they fry everything. Seriously. Even their Fruit Loops. It tastes wonderful of course but as you can imagine it’s contributed to the amazing amount of heart disease and general poor health of the population.
Yogurt is an import part of Indian cooking and raita is my friend. It’s a yogurt sauce much like tzaziki sauce in Greek cuisine and it’s designed as a fire extinguisher. Spicy food is hot from the oils in the chilies and spices which coat your mouth long after the bite has gone down which is why drinking water is fairly useless in putting out the fire. Instead, bread or dairy products that can absorb the oils are perfect and you’ll see raita sauce as a condiment for cutting the heat and cleansing the palate.
I pretty much dumped it on everything until it was one big raita soup and the result was not unpleasant. In fact I could live quite happily on a diet of nan, dal and raita. With plenty of sweet lime juice.
Biriyani is considered a national dish, at least in southern India, and you’ll find it in all forms—chicken, vegetarian, beef or mutton--which actually isn’t mutton at all but goat. Yes, I ate plenty of goat and it wasn’t too bad. They do eat beef here, that’s not taboo as you’d think but there’s a bit of a stigma with eating beef, as if it’s a poor meat though there’s a funny story I heard associated with mutton . . .
At the church there in India where my parents work they had a “curry cookoff” which in itself cracked me up. I’m assuming it’s the Indian equivalent of a chili cookoff and the missionaries working there each entered their own favorite recipes. One of them made a beef curry and when the ladies tasted it they liked it and came back for seconds except that there had been a mistake in the labeling and it instead of labeling it a beef curry it was mislabeled as mutton.
They were going to cross it out and write in beef except that the bishop said that if all the ladies who’d eaten it realized that they’d eaten beef instead of goat they’d all become sick so it remained “mutton curry” and no one realized what the secret ingredient was. What you don't know won't hurt you. . . .
One of my favorite things I had was the lime juice. Limes are big in India (though oddly enough they don’t have lemons) and for breakfast I often drank sweet lime juice which was like freshly squeezed orange juice only with limes. Frothy on top, it was completely wonderful and I could drink gallons of the stuff. They sometimes serve it with soda and call it sweet lime soda and I had several of those excellent babies while lounging by the pool in Hyderabad. They also have a salty variety and while it would be easiest to say it tastes like salty lime juice it’s probably more descriptive to say it reminds me of grapefruits because I always eat my grapefruit with salt sprinkled on top. Tasty and different.
Oh, and they also had watermelon juice and something called "mashmelon juice" which were both heavenly. Bring on the mashmelon juice.
While ice cream is very popular and you can get it nearly everywhere (though it’s not as good as American ice cream) there’s kind of a superstition that eating or drinking cold things is bad for your health and people will often think that if they eat something cold they’ll catch cold. I suppose it makes about as much sense as we in the west thinking that if you get cold you’ll catch a cold but it means that most drinks and things are served at room temperature unless you ask. And even sometimes then it may not happen. They love to please and instead of disappointing you by saying they don't have something they'll just bring you something else and pretend you asked for it instead.
One of the drinks that Indians think is healthful is green coconuts. As in unripe coconuts. You see vendors everywhere with piles of them and they’ll swipe off the top with a machete, stick a straw in it and hand it over. I tried it a couple of times and all I can say is that it must be an acquired taste. You think it’ll be nice and coconutty, with all that good milky flavor coming at you but instead it’s rather bitter and thin and that whole room temperature thing just adds to the ambiance. One time we got them to cut the whole thing in half so we could eat the insides, thinking that the coconut meat had to be better but instead we just got something that reminded me of chilled monkey brains. Without the chilled part. Definitely not a treat.
I thought I’d seen everything the world had to offer when it came to fruits and veggies but boy was I wrong. In the photograph below you see from the top clockwise: sapota, white guava and jack fruit which are completely amazing. They look kind of like a cross between a potato and a watermelon—big like a watermelon but brownish like a potato—and they grow on trees suspended on one end by a little skinny vine. When you cut them open it’s a disaster because they’re full of this goopy stuff that seems like some kind of organic latex--sticky and gloppy. Inside are the little segments you see in the photo and once you’ve cleaned all the gel off you take out the seed from each segment and feast. The taste and texture remind me of dehydrated apple--rubbery and sweet.
The sapota are much like persimmons in texture and very very sweet. I didn't care for it too much and the guava was full of seeds but had a nice flavor. They also have things like dragon fruit and fifteen varieties of mangoes and lots of melons but they also have things like mango flavored ginger root which sounds like heaven to me. When are we going to get some of that?
Indian junk food
Potatoes chips are huge in India as well as ketchup. I don’t know why we didn’t think of this first but they married the two flavors to create ketchup flavored potato chips and let me tell you they’re good. It’s kind of like French fries with ketchup built in but they have fancier flavors like Spanish Tomato Tango which can only be described as a party in your mouth.
And yes, that package says "Naughty Tomatoes." Heh.
But the best way to get a handle on India food is to go to a breakfast buffet. Indians don’t have sugary breakfasts like we do in America, they eat a lot of the same things for breakfast that they do for lunch and dinner but the difference is that breakfast food is much milder. Apparently they don’t do spice before noon. Vadas (or wadas as they pronounce it) are little donuts of meal with onions and garlic, idly are steamed dumplings that can have chopped peppers or other treats cooked in and dosas are like big crepes with a potato curry filling (you can see vadas and idly capsicum in the top picture). All come with a rainbow of condiments, curries and chutneys on the side and all are very good. My favorite was probably aloo bajee (picture number two) which is a potato mixture in tomato sauce that comes with a fry bread on the side. Not too spicy and kind of like huevos rancheros. Only without the huevos.
Sponsored by Annette Lyon, whose new novel Band of Sisters is now in print.