‘’You can’t eat a mango politely, not if you really want to savour it.’’ This was one of my first lessons in Indian cuisine, from my host, a culinary guru as we sat slurping and sucking as mango juice ran down our arms and landed on the table. I had arrived in India for a culinary tour in mango season and they were everywhere. Every hotel boasted mango ice-cream, sorbets, deserts, fresh mango for breakfast, mango pickle, you name it, if it included a mango it was there. But it wasn’t until I was in the home of a culinary aficionado that I experienced a mango like the locals did, in a way that brought back for them, their childhood memories. Cut the two large sides off in one piece, score the flesh into squares, turn it inside out and eat it with your hands, gorge on it, allowing the juice to run over hands, drip down arms, become lost in the true flavours of this delicious fruit whilst in season and not caring what anyone else thinks. In India, everyone understands, this is the best way to enjoy the fruit.
My lessons didn’t stop there.Indian cuisine varies from state to state and from season to season and over several years of traveling the country I have discovered that there are a multitude of additional factors which have influenced the dishes which are made. One could write books and books about Indian cuisine, and many have but I will try to keep it (very brief with the bare essentials). Fish and coconut (and even beef!) are prevalent in Kerala, and the abundance of fresh water in the region means that rice can be easily grown therefore ‘curry and rice’ is the order of the day, all cooked in coconut oil. In West Bengal where the food is cooked in mustard oil, giving a very different flavour. In Rajasthan, a wheat growing region, dishes, which also include meat (mutton and chicken) are cooked in delicious spices and served with chapatis (Indian bread) but the food preservation in this dry state influenced the vegetables and the food prep which gives it its unique style. The Mughals created from rich creamy delicacies and the British, Dutch and Portuguese left influences which are still apparent today.
I have discovered that the food that people eat is also determined by religious beliefs; and despite being thought of as a vegetarian country, in many states meat is eaten, though, as India is a paradox, Hindus who do eat meat, won’t on a Tuesday. Jains are not only vegetarian, they won’t eat any root vegetables, onions or garlic. I have learnt that health has a part to play and many ancient recipes were designed not only around the spices available for flavour, but ones which contributed to good health. I myself have become an advocate of the healing power of turmeric, as anyone who has ventured into my path with the slightest ailment will tell you.
In the south I have visited spice gardens peppered with the aroma of freshly picked offerings, cardamom and Tellicherry pepper, I will never put ‘normal’ pepper in my grinder again – not after a Tellicherri pepper hit! Wherever I have travelled in the country, I have visited visit fresh fruit and vegetable markets, bargained with the vendors and learnt from them how to select the freshest produce, I have tried the street food, and always try and discover the most famous vendor in each city, whether for dosa, or kachoris or chilli pakoras (the guy in Bundi is a whizz). I am spoilt, as we know, and so also get to meet local experts who have been more than happy to show me how to create dishes from their particular region or from the royal kitchens of the past. Try lunch with the Bedlas in Udaipur – oh my word – words fail me. I recently went to Lucknow and enroled on a street food walk. OMG, it was TO DIE FOR, the famous Tunday’s kebabs, the different breads associated with each dish (there will be a whole article on Lucknow alone at some point), and what makes it better is that now all plastic in Lucknow is banned and all food is served on traditional leaf plates.
Living in India has allowed me to travel extensively and discover so many delights from kitchens as simple as a pile of cow dung ashes in a field to the fabulous kitches of the maharajas and the delicacies just keep on coming. My journeys around India have turned out to be as much of an epicuean journey as an cultural one, it has been a fascinating insight into this diverse land. There are a multitude of myths, legends and delights as well as flavours to Indian cuisine.
Of course, it hasn’t all been plain sailing. I have discovered that there are some foods that for me just will never make it onto a daily, weekly or even anual wish list. Starting with one of the worst, dokhla. Now what is all that about? I was first served it when working late in the office one evening. Instead of the usual samosa, a piece of cake was placed next to me, how lovely I thought… It looked not unlike the cake which was served way back when I was still at St Hilda’s Convent school, before my age had hit double digits. Once a week, for ‘pudding’ the nuns would give us two huge squares of sponge cake, one chocolate and one vanilla buried under a lake of custard, Birds powdered of course – it was divine. Skip forward 30 plus years and the piece of ‘cake’ placed next to me, several continents away took me back to those innocent days. I eagerly grabbed the plastic spoon thoughtfully provided and tucked in with gusto. BIG mistake. Oh my word, what the hell was this? Now maybe the green chilli should have given it away, but that was facing away from me. Not only was it not a lovely sweet piece of vanilla cake, it was savoury but of a non descript variety, the surprise of which would have been manageable had it not been for the fact that it seemed as though someone had also poured a glass of water over it. What the hell? Now I was reliably informed that it is a delicacy from Gujarat, the texture is deliberate but possibly the one given to me, from a street food stall in Delhi may not have been that great and so, not to be dismissive, when I found myself in Gujarat I tried it again, from a place of excellent repute. Safe to say, it is one food I will never grow to like, better to leave it to those who appreciate it and move on.
However, it is the Indian deserts which I am unable to make friends with. To be honest, I am not really a sweet person anyway, as in sweet toothed, well to be fair, I am neither sweet or sweet toothed. Although I loved the sponge and custard at school, I have never developed a sweet tooth, most of my female friends are astounded that I can go for weeks without eating chocolate, though I do enjoy it when I do indulge. Perhaps this why I have never really taken to Indian deserts because I really have discovered that they are something I will never grow to appreciate. They are just so unbelievably, brain numbingly sweet and it doesn’t seem to matter how much food varies from state to state, everywhere in India seems to have a desire to eat Gulab Jamun. Why? It seems throughout the whole India they can hardly wait to serve you your two or three helpings of main course, so that they can present you, in a flourish, with two (godforbid sometimes 3) of the evil little brown balls in a bowl, looking eagerly on as they wait for you to match their eagerness in gobbling them down. Now, for those not in the know, Gulab Jamun are basically dough balls, deep fried and then soaked in sugar syrup and served swimming in said sugar syrup. Deep fried, sugar soaked balls of dough. The meer sight of them can set my fillings on edge never mind add three inches to my hips. I suffered years of being polite, pushing them around the bowl, murmering, ‘Ooh, lovely, delicious, but I am so sorry, I am just toooo full, so sorry,’ before I decided that no hotel, contract or friendship was worth having to suffer them any more. Now I just blatantly refuse, Yorkshire style.
However, they pale into insignificance when faced with my ultimate nightmare in the Indian sweet department – Rasgulla. They are the devil incarnate of Indian deserts. Imagine, and I quote, ”Ball shaped dumplings of Indian cottage cheese and semolina dough, cooked in light syrup made of sugar. This is done until the syrup permeates the compressed cottage cheese dumplings.” Yes, you read that right, compressed cottage cheese soaked in sugar syrup. For those not familiar with Indian cottage cheese, I can only liken them to tofu (which should also be banned) balls soaked in sugar and served in a sugar solution. Now, if I had to, I could cope with the taste of these, or lack there of, because, as I am sure you can imagine, there really isn’t much taste to have a bad reaction to. But it is the fact that when you put them in your mouth and attempt to chew, not only do they squeak, but they also squirt and trust me, for a food substance, that is just plain wrong!
For more musings on the food of India check out: http://memsahibinindia.com/2014/09/14/curry-for-breakfast-seriously/