Travels in India: Food Edition

imageIn 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.

imageSo 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.

imageI 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.

Torey Malai Kofta 12 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.

Torey Dosa3 Various sauces of spiciness. The green one is spinach sauce, which is always fantastic.



Torey Mix plate 24 Tali. Served home style with a couple vegetable choices, dal, rice, and chapati. Real home cooking

Torey Tali5 Masala Papad. Unleavened flat bread topped with various goodness, tastes a lot like a mexican pizza

Torey Masala Papd6 Cardamom Parantha. Like a European pancake with a delicious layer of caramelised apples and onions in the middle topped with fruits and cream.

Torey Parantha7 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.

image8 They even serve a pretty good pizza

Torey PizzaIndia 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!”

Torey Sizzle Brownie

*Sizzling Brownie

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.

Torey Popo brownie face

*After consuming your brownie you may be possessed to attack your neighbors brownie.

Both contenders for best apple pie

Torey Apple Pie 1

imageIts 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).

India: A way of life


As I enjoy wonderful first world amenities aboard Turkish airlines I find it interesting to ponder what awaits me in India. Out of the window, as we fly around the Middle East no fly zone, I can see the oil refinery fires lighting up huge tracts of open land with their glowing magnificence. Someone too has a green laser pointer and is targeting our plane. An ominous thought crosses my mind for a moment, but then remember how fun laser pointers are. 

I arrive in India without much incident going through the normal airport checks and duties. The immigration officer forgets to stamp my passport, but begrudgingly fixes his mistake. I negotiate my first haggling of a taxi when my new friend tries to get me a whole 6 person for myself which is beyond expensive. I locate a normal taxi man for all I can tell and still get taken for a ride, but what a great ride. I am in a shoddy little metal box and driving through the amazing traffic of Mumbai. India is just what I expected of a third world country and my fears dissipate. I need to learn the ropes, but today I have only one task. Ride my first day high all the way to Pune where I will reside for 3 months and figure it out. So I don’t mind when I overpay for my taxi, or when it breaks down 5 minutes later. I am smiling and enjoying it all. His friend picks us up and takes me not to my desired destination, but a bus station to Pune. The price for the bus is correct, but now I super overpaid for my taxi to a far away destination, but oh well. He asks for a 50 in tip and I just have to laugh at India. I’ll get my chops quick enough and I’ll enjoy doing it. Meditating on letting go of the few dollars wasted I realize that all my desired experiences have occurred and I must thank the universe. Above all else I wanted to easily, quickly, and with great joy secure passage to Pune. Well accomplished indeed. I’ll manifest cheap later. For now I am intact and on my way to Pune for 4 hours. Within my first day I will discover just about all I need to understand India.

There is trash everywhere and while it assaults my mental concepts of aesthetic beauty, I find it almost to be more honest. The world is full of trash, more being made each day, whose fate will be the same. At least the Indians have the truth staring them in the face and are resolved to its presence. Perhaps this “in your face” approach would spur western public opinion to consider more our mass produced and disposable way of life more critically. We can keep putting it out of sight, but it still remains. This leads to the first realization, that the east has put more emphasis on developing the inner world than the outer beauty.  Each person is very friendly and has a peace about their life that isn’t found in the west despite all our outer appearances.

Layers of beliefs are shedding as they come to the surface. Are these people suffering? What is daily life, work, the point to anyone here? I know nothing, but looking at anyone they seem to be in their place, doing whatever they are doing and not resigned with an air of defeat at their fate, but rather embrace it as life. I struggle with my conceptions to place this way of being. What drives it? Is it even real or an outsiders quick understanding?  To sell chips and chai on busses all day, can one really enjoy that life? I look around at life and it’s multifaceted functioning and the beautiful mess of it all. I see people totally fine with the way the world is here. I was told to not try to change India, but embrace it and that’s the approach I’m taking. I look at the world and remember this isn’t the world. This is what man has made, the world is nature. So to ask myself the question of “could I find contentment in this system?” This question shows that we forget that this system is a choice and the natural world still exists. I don’t have to choose between this society and that society.  I am choosing to live life rebelliously and choose something different and authentic to myself.

The Indian head wobble is a very amazing and astoundingly confusing motion to a western mind.  As they stand there shaking their head no, they are completely agreeing with you.  You know they are saying yes, but still the conditioning of a yes being a forward nod, instead of a side to side no, is hard to let go.  You also learn right away that if they don’t know what you just asked, the answer is always “yes, yes”.

Is this food vegan?  
Yes yes.
So does it have any milk in it?
Oh Yes! (This is India you idiot)

I remind my friends that they probably have no idea what the word vegan is.  So everyone learns to ask simpler questions if they really need to know something. Everyones english goes down a degree, because less is more and you just want to get the meaning across.

Begging is a profession here. It seems a necessity as well for many people, whom have horrendous injuries or missing and twisted limbs. There is the magic show men who have a special flower that opens at your touch. There are the maimed and old sitting in the street. There are the street venders selling all manor of things that seem useless to me. There are the thin ladies who all look the same, carrying a small child in their arms, miming the movement for food or grabbing onto your shawl. Forever conditioning their young to be beggars their whole lives as well. 

*credit Nicholas Powel & Adriana Le Blan
There is another group of beggars, that includes the various animals that share the streets.  Along with the packs of dogs and holy cows eating the daily garbage, i’ve seen camels, horses, donkeys, cats, rats, elephants, and monkeys moving through traffic and stealing oranges from street venders who don’t have a keen eye. Its quite a zoo at times, but always interesting.  However, you do always need to watch where you are walking as there are no zoo keepers cleaning this cage.

Then there are the countless little shops everywhere that all sell about the same things every block.  There are also people selling fruit and vegetables on the street every block it seems.  How can this system work?  Who goes to these people to buy their oranges?  I suddenly realize this is decentralization.  In the west we travel many miles to visit a supermarket to buy all our foods and items; by a reputable source and as far as we can tell. In India, you have to walk no more than a few feet and most of what you need is there. Today its this man with oranges, and tomorrow it may be someone else with papaya. You go into the little shop and perhaps they have 1 of the item you want, and like mothers pantry will fill it again with what seems like odds and ends when they get around to it.  Surprisingly, I find everything I need easily and so does everyone else, otherwise this system wouldn’t work.  The ideas of east and west are so different, I am sure when I step into a western supermarket for the first time, I will be appalled once again at how many useless things there are in 10 slightly different variations all competing for your attention and money. This decentralization is also the reason that you may leave a bus station heading toward a major city, only to be dropped off at an out of the way parking lot with hoards of taxi drivers jumping for your business. Everything from fruit and household goods to finding taxi drivers is setup to support hundreds of middle men all making their daily wage. 

Then there is the haggling of course. Most things are negotiable except for items with the price stamped on them. Rickshaws charge the day price and the night price. Anything you want is always marked up for the unknowing person to overpay.  Somedays you just don’t feel like fighting the whole system and just want to know the damn price so you can plan your life and shopping. If you don’t know what number to fight over, you feel so lost and wonder if your number is insulting or just part of the game. Walking away instantly drops the price, but even then you never know what bottom dollar is. I figure out the prices for rickshaw rides without ever turning on a meter, and once I know that, I know exactly how much to haggle and stick to my prices when someone wants to charge too much.  This makes life easy and fun.  Give me a few ground rules and then ill have a good time.

I can say without a doubt that India teaches you how to live life.  Life goes on and with a few social skills you can achieve just about anything. From housing and transportation to food and entertainment, while having some good laughs in between, India is an experience in what constitutes daily life without all the gloss and glam covering the person to person interaction that turns the world one more day. It may look very different (and smell very different), but India is a unique experience in the world and despite all my fears before arriving I have found the ground beneath my feet and everyone can learn to stand up here.  Blessings to everyone on their journey.