Indian food is so diverse, and delicious to my taste, it’s hard not to eat too much of it. The ingredients, the processing and cooking and serving, all have new and strange aspects. This post is all about food, things I’ve learned about or eaten that didn’t fit into other posts on India.
1 – Veg and Non-Veg
These are the broad categories people refer to when they are telling what foods they eat, not with quite the same meaning as people in the U.S. who might define themselves as Vegetarian, Vegan, Paleo, Gluten-free, Meat and Potatoes, I Eat Everything, etc. Here, Hindus are often “Veg,” meaning they do not eat meat or eggs, because they are Hindus and not for any health-related reasons. Muslims are Non-Veg because they have no religious ban on eating meat in general.
Our family does eat meat and eggs, so we are in the Non-Veg category, but it seems strange to say that, since we do like and eat a lot of vegetables! Hindus who do eat meat would rarely eat beef, and Muslims do not eat pork. Chicken is in abundance, and water buffalo meat, and goat meat, known as mutton.
2 – An example of wonderful Veg food is the Gujarati Thali meal we enjoyed our first night in the mountains, a traditional spread of a variety of dishes taking its name from Gujarat, the Indian state just north of here. We were the only ones in the restaurant from the beginning of our meal until the end, because we arrived so early, 7:45.
You start out with a plate of empty stainless steel bowls, and then the waiters — we had four for the three of us — alternate bringing to the table pots of soups and stews and drinks which they ladle out, and plates of breads hot off the griddle, and as soon as you have eaten half of anything they are back to refill again and again. We found ourselves eating too fast, because they seemed to be urging us on.
Not only did they bring us refills, but they brought new items after a while, which of course we must try, until we were so plumped out we had to turn our eager hosts away, and finally eat the sweet pudding that I failed to take a picture of. I was trying to figure out what was in it — surely those little red threads bleeding orange and yellow into the creamy white must be saffron, but our waiters said not. I still don’t believe them; there was a bit of a language barrier.
3 – Milk
If you are Veg, you can still enjoy dishes like that pudding, which contained a milk product, maybe yogurt. India has become the biggest producer of milk in the world, though the average dairy milks only four cows and/or water buffaloes. “One of the main reasons India is the highest producer of milk is that it imports a lot of European cows and cross-breeds them with local varieties. But the most crucial reason is that India has had a successful decades-long programme to source milk from small farmers through cooperatives.”
Because Kate doesn’t trust the regulators of these little dairies, she buys milk in aseptic boxes, or cartons of pasteurized. But most Indian households take milk home from little shops that get it fresh daily in half-liter plastic bags, such as I saw when I went out shopping with Kareena. This smiling lady was just receiving the morning’s shipment. Kareena says they boil the milk in a pot when they get it home, and store it in the fridge in the same pot, which they don’t use for any other foods, I think mostly so that the flavors of chili and cumin won’t get into the milk.
4 – Ice cream I love ice cream, and Indian ice cream is all good, in my experience. In addition to ice cream in interesting flavors they have kulfi, which is just slightly different, always served in a cone shape. I have eaten chickoo ice cream and sitafal, or custard apple ice cream. Which carries me into the topic of:
3 – Fruit
The chikoo, called sapodilla some places in the world, has been described as malt-y, and Kate and I agreed that the ice cream is so. I ate some fresh custard apple fruit and it was indeed creamy and custardy. I wanted to finish the whole thing. But be prepared for lots of finger-lickin’. As it’s mostly seeds, I think the idea of making ice cream from the pulp was inspired. Custard apple is the Indian version of the cherimoya.
5 – Rose and Pistachio
These are two of my favorite exotic flavors. Back home, I have made an Indian tapioca pudding flavored with both. So when I had a choice of kulfi flavors, I chose pistachio. And the same weekend, after our sweaty stairclimbing hike we stopped in an eclectic restaurant called The German Bakery, where I saw on the menu a Turkish Rose shake. Without a doubt I would order that! And I drank two lemon ginger iced teas as well — I was a little dehydrated and they were small, after all.
6 – Spicy food
Yes, Indians do like to add the heat to many foods. At The German Bakery, Kate ordered a side of Garlic Chana, or chickpeas, for us to share. They were really hard to stop eating!
Not only do Indians like spicy flavors generally, but there are particularly Indian blends of spices that make things taste right to their palates. So they adjust western recipes to make them fit. For example, I was munching on some Sizzling Jalapeno Nacho Crisps that looked like many versions of tortilla chips you would find in the U.S. But they seemed a little odd… When I looked at the ingredient list I found that they had ginger in the spice mix. We would not think of that as a “nacho” flavor.
7 – Sweets
Gulab jamun are balls with a doughnut like consistency, swimming in syrup. They were offered as part of a buffet we ate recently, and we ladled a couple on to our dish of butterscotch ice cream — a pleasantly sticky experience. For once I had left my camera in my pocket, so I found a picture online of gulab jamun.
And for beauty of sweets, you can’t beat this collection that Kate bought at the same store where I was buying dried apricots. Lots of pistachio here, too:
8 – Salads
I did not expect to eat salad in India, because of the possibility of contamination of raw vegetables. At home, though, we do disinfect all of our produce as soon as it comes into the house, and when eating out or ordering in, it turns out that there are many restaurants with excellent reputations regarding the safety of their menu items. Word gets around among expats about the restaurants whose food has never been known to make anyone sick.
So I have eaten salads several times, and they were some of my favorites ever. The Indian chefs seem to be creative in ways that jive with my taste preferences. They don’t overuse the ingredients that I get tired of on the U.S. salad menus, like cranberries, red onion, and avocado.
One I ate was called “Bam Bam Thank You Lamb,” and was made of Romaine and iceberg lettuces, dried tomatoes, black rice, roasted cashews, feta cheese and braised lamb.
The salad below included arugula, chickpeas, puffed rice, amaranth, cherry tomatoes, sprouts, pomegranate, lotus seeds, and feta. Isn’t that wild?
9 – Vegetables, vegetables
I love visiting the neighborhood market and seeing every sort of vegetable imaginable. It’s kind of like this in California, but more expensive, and not as fun somehow. And it’s a joy to watch Kareena cook. She roasted eggplants completely on top of the stove, just turning them every half a minute for fifteen minutes or so.
Others have noted that Indian food is not beautiful or easily presentable as a visual work of art. There are lots of basically brown items. So I think the eye appeal often comes from the shapes and textures, and the aromas and tastes are definitely sensational! Kate and I were talking about this the other night as we lingered over dessert at a South Indian restaurant, a little bowl of creamy, golden brown pudding we shared, and mused over what the ingredients might be.
Eventually we learned from the waiter or figured out ourselves that they were chikoo fruit (photo below of the fresh fruit), millet, milk, ghee, about three golden raisins… a combination that added up to an externally drab affect. But oh, it was lovely, and we did not want it to end.
At home, I have been cooking so little since becoming a widow, compared to my life before that. I wonder if my stay in India will have any effect on my life in the kitchen once I am back again? If I do find that I have been inspired to create something interesting, I’ll let you know here, because food is fun!