Food in Review I – India so far

A few people have subtly suggested a slight sadness surrounding the lack of fabulous food fables featured on this blog (those same people should be well happy with that run of aimless yet astounding alliteration!).

Admittedly – especially given the name I gave it – I did intend to feature more tales of our giddy gastronomic feasts and adventures on this platform. As it has so far transpired, on the road, it’s been a more natural fit to ‘microblog’ this stuff on Instagram, on the regular, and you really should stalk me there if you’re not already. Like, really.

However, I thought it might be fun to start blogging regular review posts, as a way to collect the ‘best ofs’ together in lip-smacking, saliva-inducing recounts. At the very least, reliving meals past can only be almost as good as actually eating them again!

Since this past week and a bit has been a little unworthy, a little lacking in superlative-bringing gushes, I thought I’d start with a general muse on India thus far, five+ weeks in and – gasp – less than three weeks to go…

Gujarati dal bati (L) and bedai roti shak and shrikhand (R)

One thing definitely holds true of our last visit: there’s no bad meals. That may sound like a contradiction to my previous statement, but no. Even though recent eatings have only really contained one meal that made me gush, everything else is still always completely fine: tasty, filling, satiating. Even a vege pilau on Indian Railways, or a dinner of a roadside samosa on another interminable overnight bus, still tick the required boxes. Eating Indian in India is failsafe.

Train veg biryani

Last time, the only really bad meals I had were attempts at Western (pasta, a burger). I’ve not made the same mistake this time around. The worst I could say is that some places have not been Indian enough, clearly cooking for perceived foreign tastes (or maybe having been scarred by one too many goris/goras complaining about spicy food…oi vey!)

Wondrous dosa, smeared wth chilli (L) and pongal, a spiced, rice pudding, laced with cardamon and coconut-heavy (R).

People often comment about the quality of food in New Zealand, that it tastes more like it’s supposed to, more of itself. I feel the same about food here.

The okra (lady fingers) are local, full and plump, as opposed to imported, limp and sad; the aubergines all small and versatile. The tomatoes, red onions, and chillis; so alive with flavour. The spices, all those magical little jewels of intensity, are here just that much fresher, that much more intense. This makes the masalas they create roast just that little bit toastier, their essential oils released into a gravy that screams: you are eating at source (or close to).

And then there’s the ghee…

Everything is cooked in large batches, too, over proper fires, in proper kadais. It adds depth and smokiness you just can’t replicate in a suburban Auckland kitchen. Sadly.

Ok, I’m getting away with myself. But you get my drift.

Wonderfully, there’s been a number of new food discoveries; the cuisines still have surprises to share.

It started straight away, in Chennai, with tiffin meals containing vege curry heavy on the mint (which so works) and gobi chop (fried cauliflower patties swimming in a spicy gravy), and has continued right up to the recent discovery of gatta, spiced doughy dumplings made with chickpea flour, and a Rajasthani delight.

Gobi chop, and other luscious delights…

We absolutely indulged a full onslaught of its famed cuisine while in Hyderabad, even though, if I’m impartial, our qualitative survey was so limited as to be unreliable. What can I say, we couldn’t resist the magnetic pull of the Grand Hotel; what they did with spice and rice was the stuff of pure magic.

In Goa, I fell under the spell of its astonishingly good quality vegan cafes: the chocolate and mint ganache and that Snickers cheesecake I can still taste on my tongue. But there were new Goan dishes, too: chicken cafreal, a herby green concoction with roots deep in Africa, and balchao, with that characteristic blend of spice and vinegar. There was also THAT biryani experience.

Moving into Maharashtra, and Mumbai, repeated servings of handi, both vege and non-vege, got me hooked on its triple-shot whammy of creamy intensity. There was also the intriguing nachos-like kori rotti, with its crispy rice sheets, and our first definitive taste of Parsi food. Outside of Mumbai, darkly herby methi (fenugreek) chicken and okra stuffed with peanut powder and coconut (stop it!) were revelations.

Kori rotti

Finally, our brief foray into Gujarat opened up a whole new state to taste, although among the most memorable eatings were South Indian dosas and joyous fried potato balls, aloo bonda. However, there was that dal bati, served with crumbs/chunks of wheaten rolls, the spiced roti with local potato curry, and shrikhand, sweetened and spiced hung curd, so thick and luscious. All very, very good.

Speaking of dal, that is among the list of dishes that have been pure joys to be reacquainted with. Dal really is amazing, and we’ve added dal fry, dal tadka, and slightly-sweetened Gujarati dal, as specific new forms to want to recreate (and to say nothing of the coconut-infused Sri Lankan versions, too!). Dosas, in general too. There’ve been some stunners, and I cannot get enough of these rice pancake and curry combos. I must have a dosa pan and batter recipe when I get home, please.

DAL!

Chai has also been a real rediscovery this time around, and I now crave it on the daily (buh-bye coffee habit, for now). Chai is sometimes more peppery, sometimes more gingery, and sometimes laced with cardamon (my preference). It’s as varied and personal as those feverishly guarded masala recipes!

And there were the very specific experiences of that goat curry at Cenora, and that Gujarati thali fit for kings and queens at Samrat, both in Mumbai, that we just had to revisit.

EPIC Gujarati vege thalis!

A final reflection: India really shows you just how easy (and SO deliciously easy) vegetarianism can be. As I remember saying last time, I could happily be a vegetarian in India (and indeed, I am at least 90% so at the moment). It has really solidified a commitment to reducing our meat consumption once home.

The simple truth us, I feel better, lighter (meat sits around in your digestive system for a long time), and, a clincher: vegetarianism is SO much better for the environment. It may not have such a hugely detrimental impact here, but the West’s industrial meat production systems are a  true modern-day horror and a major contributor to climate change. There’s just no getting around it.

Best of all though, I’m feeling majorly inspired to re-establish a kitchen and get cooking! Hope you’re ready for me Wellington…

Postscript: There actually has been one disappointment. Last time we were here, every so often, when needing a little treat, I’d pick up a modest bar of Cadbury Silk chocolate, which had these gorgeous little flecks of candied orange peel throughout. I’m not a fan of orange-flavoured chocolate (those damn Terry’s chocolate oranges can take a flying leap…), but this was something else.

Sadly, while Cadbury Silk is still here, it appears India did not share my enthusiasm for the bar, as it’s obviously been discontinued. RIP Cadbury Orange Silk. My blood sugar levels do not mourn your passing…

NB: Bars are 60gms; this is not, I repeat NOT, a family sized affair…

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