In case you haven’t noticed, I like food, all aspects of food; from thinking about it, making it, eating it, dissecting a dish to recreate it, looking at it, trying new tastes, and sharing it with all. It is my most accessible creative art form, and I like to care for people by feeding them. So when I get dropped into a vegetarian’s dreamland of flavors and new tastes, I’ve reached nirvana.
A little back story on the many stages of what can be called “diets”, I have gone through to arrive at this now interesting mix of healthy vegetarian. Of course I started out eating meat and thankfully I’ve tasted that delicious culinary world, but my body asked me to change directions into vegetarian. Thankfully I still have no qualms about skipping a whole category of meat inspired flavors and if my body decides meat is back on the menu, ill listen. I’ve been pescitarian (veg + fish), vegan, juiced, raw, and even skipping food all together for two weeks to try fasting. All of these experiences and seeming boundaries have only added to my love of food. The quest to eating healthy has added new foods and creativity into my diet and I’ve arrived with a good foundation of what my body wants and many delicious ways to get there. The only key to eating healthy is to listen deeply to your body (not the mind), each one is different and no set rules will always apply. How to listen? See meditation.
On my most interesting food journey, fasting, I happened to attend a feast and just watched everyone consume every delicacy. Food went in and conversation came out, but I can’t say anyone was more present than I, to appreciate the smells, looks, and possible tastes. I had an interesting perspective on that particular meal and I don’t know that I’ve enjoyed food more than being present for that experience in which I couldn’t use taste. Its the fabled popcorn down the hall smell. Never does it taste so good as when you know you wont actually eat it. Of course actually tasting food is generally more enjoyable, but learning to really be present with your food, to enjoy all aspects of it, even the mental aspects is a lesson well learned. I use a good adage “Eat every bite like the first”; Don’t rush through the meal, explore each bite with your eyes, then your mouth and taste buds, be present with each bite and be careful to watch when you eat for enjoyment or when your pleasure center in the brain takes over and eating just becomes routine, another pleasure button for lab mice. My original adage was “eat every bite like the last”, which helped me slow down, but then the meal is always over, instead of a new adventure beginning each time you lift your fork. This helps with enjoyment and portion control and never leaves you wishing for more, because each bite was a lifetime.
So enough about eating in general, the Travels in India: Food Edition can officially begin and what could be better for a vegetarian foodie than traveling to India? Not only are the menus extensive and different from region to region, but you just can’t beat the prices. I thought I liked Indian food before going abroad, but after eating my fill, I honestly only want more. Thankfully I have been able to sample most of the world’s cuisines, but I must say I could eat Indian food every day.
India is known for their curries or gravies and masala. Curry, being an English word to describe every sauce that comes out of an Indian kitchen and masala, an Indian word meaning every spice known to humanity. So when you read the words ‘masala curry’ you couldn’t be less descriptive. Thankfully the Indians have color coded their gravies as white, brown, orange, red, and two descriptions on consistency being thick or saucy. They kindly also tell you what main vegetables (or meats) are included being aloo, mutter, paneer, gobi, and palak (potato, peas, cheese, cauliflower, and spinach). So armed with this colorful array of descriptions you spin the wheel of deliciousness and see what comes out.
I had the unique food privilege to be located in one town for 3 months and thus worked my way through most of the menus at my favorite places. This became a challenge and a goal because almost everything new I tried became my new favorite dish. Once I discovered a new delicacy or sauce, I tried the same at the other restaurants to see who made it best. Many times I was surprised that it could be better, but often I found that the same dish could vary widely in flavor almost making it something completely different. Already at a disadvantage at figuring out how to recreate these masterpieces I had to settle for pictures and names and hopefully find recipes later.
I fell in love with one sauce at my favorite place, the “Yogi Tree”. They serve this sauce in a variety of dishes so I could vary the contents. The dish I started with is called “Malai Kofta” which are basically veg meatballs drenched in sauce. This dish is served all over, but nowhere else did I find the sauce to be better than here. Over the many times I ordered this dish I befriended my waiter and he tried to sneak the recipe out of the chef. Not being a chef himself, he came back with a basic list of ingredients and no cooking instructions. I think I shed a few tears over that sad development, which only means I have to figure it out on my own. The problem with making your favorite Indian restaurant dish at home is technique and the masala spice mix. Everyone uses a different mix which is near impossible to make exactly again and thus every dish will be different. Many restaurants even use premade boxed masala mixes which can help the home chef, but only if you can keep on buying it!
Other favorite dishes that soon came forth as clear winners:
1 The famous Malai Kofta, slathered in sauce, topped with ghee and cream for good measure. Best served with naan.
2 Masala Dosa. A very thin pancake made in part with rice batter, served with spiced potatoes in the center. Can come as big as 1 meter long.
3 Various sauces of spiciness. The green one is spinach sauce, which is always fantastic.
4 Tali. Served home style with a couple vegetable choices, dal, rice, and chapati. Real home cooking
5 Masala Papad. Unleavened flat bread topped with various goodness, tastes a lot like a mexican pizza
6 Cardamom Parantha. Like a European pancake with a delicious layer of caramelised apples and onions in the middle topped with fruits and cream.
7 Fried lotus root in a sweet and sour sauce. Not Indian food, but this was so good I went out of my way several times to eat a whole plate of it.
8 They even serve a pretty good pizza
India also has its own category of bread called naan. There are other similar choices such as chapati, roti, parantha, and papad; all of which are used to scoop up sauce and deliver it to your mouth instead of your other choice of flavored rice or the old standby of using your fingers. India also like the rest of the world has croissants, generally more like a roll in the shape of a croissant. They do their best to copy the french delicacy, but I think they missed the memo that more butter is the key.
“There is no cheesecake in India!” – Torey Julian
This quickly became an inside joke as many places served what is clearly labelled as cheesecake. While it may indeed contain cheese (among who knows what else), these dense dry cakes clearly cannot be compared to cultures that actually have cream cheese, which is what is used in making the famous New York Cheesecake. So whenever India served us a western cuisine dish with what we would have expected to be of a certain texture and flavor and which had been clearly Indian-ized, all you could say was “There is no cheesecake in India!”
I did find some wonderful desserts though. I managed to try every apple pie and brownie in town and happened upon a really good carrot cake. Some places knew how to work with chocolate and some clearly did not. Our favorite was the sizzling brownie served on a hot plate with chocolate poured over the whole thing. It sizzles, it smokes, it makes chocolate lava and melts all the ice cream as you dig in trying not to burn your mouth too much.
*After consuming your brownie you may be possessed to attack your neighbors brownie.
Both contenders for best apple pie
Its always sad to realize when you leave a place that you forgot to take pictures of the most routine things. For instance my favorite breakfasts have been completely forgotten, even though I ate them every day for 3 months. This includes:
Poha: A delicious yellow rice with lemon and spices with potatoes.
Sago: Tapioca pearls sautéed in sesame oil with peanuts and curry leaves (this is a very chewy dish, which I called the most meditative to eat).
Idil and Sambar: Little Indian rice buns served with a coconut gravy and sauces.
Uttapam: An Indian pancake with onions, tomatoes, and fresh herbs on top.
As I sit here salivating over my own memories, I can already taste my next trip to India and the wonderful tastes ill encounter. Blessings to your own culinary adventures and may you be lucky enough to visit India (or try your local Indian joint).