Monday, September 2, 2013

Food in India

Food is always a big part of travelling for me, and I was particularly excited about the food in India because I love Indian food. It was originally my intention to write regular blog posts dedicated to the food of different regions of the country; however, as you may have noticed, we have been running behind on our blog and so have prioritised posts about what we have seen and done over things like food. Instead, I have decided to write a brief summary of some of the more memorable food experiences (both good and bad) mostly to ensure that we don't forget them:
  • Going veggie in Mumbai for fear of “Bombay Belly” and then ditching the idea after a few days for some fantastic chicken tikka wraps from a roadside stall;

  • The best kulfi ever in Mumbai – sold by weight using gigantic and ancient looking scales from a hole-in-the-wall opposite Girguam beach. Incredibly rich, creamy and tasty (and probably equally bad for you);

  • Amazing food all round in Goa. Our favourite beachside restaurant was so good we ate there 3 times – Huderabadi chicken, Goan prawn curry, chicken vindaloo (yes, the veggie idea was well and truly ditched by now), veggie korma and tandori mushrooms all served with fantastic (and huge) nan bread. Monique also became temporarily infatuated with the veggie burger with feta and chili jam at a restaurant right next to our guesthouse;

  • Receiving an education in home cooking in Hyderabad courtesy of Abhi (with a little help from both his maid and mother) and experimenting with street food under Abhi's guidance – various tasty chaat and some lip-tingling chilli fritters;

  • Our first “slop thali” at a highly recommended restaurant in Mysore. A thali is a combination of several small portions of different dishes (most often vegetarian) with rice and/or chapatis and in many places includes refills of your favourite dishes. “Slop thali” is my personal name for a particular variant of the thali, which is derived from the nature in which the various dishes are unceremoniously slopped out onto your plate (or banana leaf if you're not lucky enough to get a plate) by the staff who patrol the restaurant on the look out for diners who they deem to be in need of a top-up. In this particular instance the food that was slopped up on our banana leaves was not good, but the very good masala dosa I ate from a roadside stall afterwards made up for it;

  • The best butter chicken ever in Munnar – rich and spicy and buttery and delicious. Pleasingly different from any butter chicken I have had back home;

  • An underwhelming “slop thali” in Munnar. The locals literally fight each other to get into this restaurant at lunchtime. First time around we decided that the 1pm scrum was a bit much for us (I haven't seen anything like it outside of a Huskisson family party – even Aunty Joy might have met her match). Second time around we arrived early to beat the rush/fight and discovered that we had to first wash the dirt off our banana leaf with our hands (after the arrival of cups of hot water for this purpose caused some initial confusion) before the various dishes were slopped out in generous potions. Our request for cutlery caused some amusement, and after some forks were rustled up we found that the food really wasn't worth fighting over. A memorable experience nonetheless; 
  • The friendliest restauranteur ever in Kochi who seemed genuinely invested in us enjoying our food as much as possible whilst simultaneously looking like an Indian Santa. The combination of his hospitality and the food itself persuaded us to return twice;

  • The extensive lunch on board our houseboat on the Keralan backwaters, the highlight of which was green beans with mustard seeds and fresh coconut;

  • Fantastic veggie thali at the side of the Keralan backwaters at an inauspicious looking restaurant with a tamed eagle sat, untethered, out front;

  • Pizza Hut pizza in the food court of the mall opposite our hotel in Mangalore. Some much needed comfort food after a tough few days of moving around the Wayanad area and struggling to find hotels willing to let us stay;

  • The best veggie thali ever in Aurangabad. I lost count of how many different delicious dishes there were, all accompanied by fresh puri. The staff were unrelenting in their quest to feed us until we could not eat any more, and then seemed genuinely offended when we refused further servings;

  • Excellent tasting tandoori paneer in Delhi which unfortunately gave Monique a bad case of “Delhi Belly”;

  • A great rooftop restaurant at our guesthouse in Jaipur, the highlight of which, for me, was a lamb rogan josh that gave my mom's version a run for its money;

  • A measly potion of 6 french-fries with a veggie burger in Jaipur which made Monique very sad;

  • Dining with breathtaking views of the sun setting over the fort each night in Jodhpur;

  • Beautiful sweet and spicy pumpkin and mango curries (topped with a mixture of dried mint and coconut) at a tiny family restaurant in Udaipur;

  • Finally finding a good bakery in Udaipur. It was a shame we didn't get to go back for more chocolate almond torte and chocolate balls;

  • The best jeera (cumin) potatoes at a rooftop restaurant in Agra with a great view of the Taj Mahal (albeit through the rain);

  • Surprisingly good cheese fondue in Varanasi served with freshly baked bread;

  • Inedible pork curry in Varanasi. It wasn't that it tasted too bad to eat, it was just so chewy that it was physically impossible for me to eat.

    The above are just a handful of the memorable meals we ate during our 3 months in India, and I will probably add more as I remember them. Overall the food in India was great, although I was surprised at how authentic much of the Indian food I was previously familiar with was. There was no meal that put the Indian food available in the UK to shame, but the average meal in India tasted like food from a good quality Indian restaurant in Birmingham (albeit the quality of the meat in India is greatly inferior to that which we are used to). I was surprised to find that the food in India really wasn't particularly spicy; I had expected the food in the south to be quite fiery, but with the exception of a vindaloo in Goa nearly all the food was what I would class as firmly medium spiced.

One significant difference between the Indian food in the UK and authentic Indian food is the naan bread; I am sued to a naan bread being quite soft and doughy, however naan bread in India is very thin and often quite crispy. It is much more common to have chapatis served with a curry than naan bread, and the fresh chapatis is one area where the Indian food in the UK falls down in comparison. When they are good and fresh chapatis are tasty and really thin and light.

One aspect of Indian eating that I struggled to get to grips with (if you'll pardon the pun) was eating using hands alone. This is one thing when eating a curry or vegetable dish with naan or chapati, because as long as there is sufficient bread it isn't too difficult to scoop the sauce up, or wrap the bread around pieces of meat/veg, and with a little help from a fork or spoon my technique was passable. However, when it comes to eating rice and daal with hands alone I draw the line. There is a very distinctive technique used by Indians for this which involves repeatedly jabbing at the food with vertical fingers until it becomes a sloppy mixture, then lifting a load up with the same vertical-fingered style and dropping it into the mouth. The result of this technique is rice and lentils all over one's hands and face, as well at the table. Whereas back home a table in a restaurant might be swept of crumbs after a meal, or perhaps the tablecloth replaced, in many Indian restaurants the table is cleaned down using a squeegy and a bucket of soapy water in much the same way as one would clean a car windshield. As nice as it would be to fit in with the locals I am 6'5” and pasty white so that's never going to happen; if I'm going to stand out anyway I don't mind standing out by being the tourist who asks for a fork to eat his food with, much to the amusement of the wait staff and other diners.

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