Food in review II – India at an end

When last checked in on all matters culinary, we were at the end of our stay in the charming state of Gujarat. Needing to fill in quite a few hours on our last day, without getting sweaty (as we’d already checked out of our hotel), we spent an afternoon/evening in aircon heaven at the mall, eating ‘mall food’. You’d think it a heinous proposition, but nup: even food-court food in India is more than palatable. Even better, as we were at Ahmedabad’s biggest mall, it was pretty flash.

We started off local, with a pav bhaji off, buying Mumbai’s famous street-food staple from two competing eateries and then putting them through the rigours of in-depth analysis. Or we just ate them and threw shade at the loser. We then whiled away a couple of hours at a schmancy cafe, which truly delivered, with the best coffee I had in all of India (so good, I had to have two). Finishing up with a post-movie Maccas feed might seem a little declasse, but the chicken McSpicy McBody-slammed any of the tripe Ronald’s serving up at home, to be honest: spicy, succulent, fresh.

From there, it was off to ravishing Rajasthan. I have to say, magnificent forts and deserts and palaces (oh my) aside, the food didn’t quite ignite the superlative searching on thesaurus.com; however, this may have been more a mixture of illness (flu, what?), tiredness, plus the fact that the state is heavy on the tourist traps.

In Jaisalmer, the one true Insta-worthy meal went unphotographed due to fading light. It was at a stunning rooftop haveli restaurant, and was a real vege feast: a gorgeous, rich and creamy baigan (eggplant) bhaji; another new dal to add to the list, dhora dal, which has a wonderfully fragrant, roasted coriander seed flavour; and something completely new: Rajasthani gatta, dense, chickpea flour sausages, cut into chunks, and cooked in a spicy yoghurt and tomato gravy. Wow.

Otherwise, we mostly ate on the roof of our guesthouse; partly convenience, partly for the fort views, partly because the host was a real kool kat. It was also great for big pots of chai tea and milk coffee, which seemed to stretch forever in the small little chai cups favoured here. Bliss.

The hit-and-miss continued through our other two Rajasthan stops. I mentioned elsewhere how much we found the city of Chittorgarh a strange and unwelcoming place, so, yeah, we were more than happy with a couple of completely acceptable vege thalis!

Bundi, pretty Bundi, sadly derelict when it came to memorable eating, apart from one exceptional exception. Our guide’s sister ran a home kitchen from which she prepared fresh thalis for visitors that charismatic Jay had managed to convince they needed to try (but of course).

They were very expensive compared to all other thalis we ate, by some distance, including the epic Gujarati thalis I spoke about last time, but it’s pretty hard to beat freshly cooked curries and puris (gorgeous little puffy roti-type fried breads). She also made the most amazing tomato-chilli chutney that had us licking the bowl (it was oily so you know it was good!) . That stuff could be bottled and become the India’s version of Lao Gan Ma, seriously!

Delhi saw the dreaded illness return, and me either not hungry at all (say whut?) or needing/craving blandness (double whut?). The upshot, though, was that I finally got a good helping of luscious, organic peanut butter on suitably dense brown bread. Heaven!

Before the illness descended, there were two other great food memories. Randomly, we stumbled upon a Parsi restaurant that was very old school glamour. What was not old school, though, was the baby eggplants stuffed with coconut and peanut powder and served in a herbaceous spiky green gravy. Exceptional.

We also returned to the hipster enclave of Haus Kass, and a particularly memorable South Indian dosa. It was still as good as the first time around, and as a free gift with purchase, as we were eating early, we got to witness the maitre D perform his puja (prayer) for, I’m guessing, a profitable and successful night’s trade.

Onto Khajuraho, which, like Bundi, was pretty devoid of tourists. With food options a bit limited, we stuck to fairly mainstream tourist fare bar one memorable wander into a small local Jain place. I felt like eggplant, the owner recommended baigan nizami and told me to trust him, and I’m glad I did. A fried whole eggplant, split down the middle, and smothered in a richly spicy almost pastelike sauce arrived. It was duly mopped up with garlic naan.

I do also have to confess that I had been craving a proper beef burger for quite some time, and while Westerning it up, I had a lamb burger that really Hit. The. Spot. #dontjudgeme

Varanasi, and again more continental fare: eggs and more peanut butter and brown bread. Our one night meal was spent at an NGO where the Indian/French husband and wife owners appeared to be in the middle of a marriage breakdown. The tension clearly got into the food. Sad buzz.

At least, though, we did get back to the world-famous Blue Lassi shop, to pray at the altar of lassi. We tried a trio of orgasmic delights: pomegranate, coconut and chocolate, banana, coconut and chocolate, and saffron and dried fruit and nut. All were super stuffed with fillings, lusciously rich, and just glorious.

Lassi galore at the Blue Lassi Shop.

West Bengal’s Hill Country, and the towns of Kalimpong and Darjeeling, represented a dramatic shift. For the first time in three months we were cold, for multiple days in a row. It was equivalent to the middle of a New Zealand winter, with a cracking storm to go with it. So, we did what any humans would do in such a sudden and shocking climatic change: we carbed it up.

In Kalimpong, we momo’d ourselves into a frenzy, unable to restrain our desire for Tibetan dumplings any longer. We had them beef, we had them pork, we had them any way the lovely people wanted to give them to us. But it wasn’t all carbrageous sinning. There was the strange case of finding another example of Keralan chicken curry, which now has me convinced it is the source of Indo-Fijian chicken curry, and a pretty decent thali (served without breads!).

‘Keralan chicken curry’

In Darjeeling, though, the carbfest reached its zenith. It probably wasn’t helped by the fact that our guesthouse served us bolstering but gargantuan breakfasts every morning, including local Nepali cuisine that had us saying, where we do we sign up?

The first night we went to a famous colonial era place, Glenary’s; the kind where elites of yesteryear would come to hob their knobs. Now it’s international tourists and classy domestics who come to knob it up amongst period wood panelling. Perusing the menu, I saw the words baked macaroni cheese and I didn’t have to be told twice. The chinese-style fried rice and chilli chicken was also pretty magnificent.

Beyond that, it was a lot of eggs and cumin hash browns with chunky wholemeal toast, and a most amazing beef burger that tasted like the very best of homemade food. I hate to admit it, but it was all comfortingly sublime, despite the new layer on insulation I could feel growing around my middle. Eek.

But there was local too, with a rather magnificent experience at a wee family-owned place, where we were served a feast of momos and two types of Tibetan noodle soups, gyathuk and bhagthuk. Again, where do we sign up?

Our India odyssey came to an end in Kolkata, but was unfortunately again marred by the return of dreaded lurgies, which pretty much had me holed up in our hostel for the last three days. So disappointing.

It didn’t, however – and nothing would – stop me from living it up with Kolkata’s gift to the street food world: Kati rolls, a layered paratha bread, coated on one side in fried egg and then wrapped around usually mutton curry, chutney and red onions. So utterly sublime, and genius in its simplicity.

Kati roll.

We also felt the need for one last Biryani…and we chose well. The mutton was so soft it put up no fight to stay attached to its bones, and each grain of rice felt lovingly hugged by its subtly spiced cooking broth. We also added another new dish to the repertoire: vege banjara.

Banjara means cooked in the style of gypsies, which basically means that the dry spices that make the masala are more coarsely ground, it’s easy to make with ingredients to hand, and it generously wallows in plenty of ghee. It’s also got a pretty fierce chilli bite. Excellent.

Finally, for our last meal, it seemed fitting to go out with a bang, in a place called Oh! Calcutta. Our vege choices were for the memory books: okra cooked in mustard oil and served in a gravy of mango and caramelised red onion; baby potatoes in a creamy, tomatoey curry; and banana flower cooked in coconut and warming spices (cardamon, cinnamon, etc.). The paratha alongside was golden, crispy and layered to perfection.

Oh India, delicious, delicious India, how I’m missing you already…

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…

Practical tips for backpacking Sri Lanka, part 1: Eating

Of course I would start here! Welcome to my four-part attempt to sum up our month in Sri Lanka, providing information and anecdotes across four themes: food, buses, trains, and a general tips and tricks conclusion. It’s my attempt to put out there, into the internet ether, some practical – hopefully entertaining – information for people who may be considering a visit (and you really, really should).

For those who know me, or follow my Instagram, it’ll be no surprise that food would be topic numero uno. Eating and food is not a prime motivation of travel, it is the prime motivation! Maybe that is overstating it just a bit, but, for me, one of the biggest attractions of starting in Sri Lanka and working our way back across to Singapore/Hong Kong was the knowledge of how many glorious cuisines that path would cover.

Additionally, the ‘things to see’ – the monuments, landscapes, historical features, and so on – are all written down in guides, explained in detail; sniffing out that most basic of human needs – sustenance – is one of the great unknown joys (mostly joys) of every day on the road. For me, anyway.

In saying this, I’ve mulled over this post for quite a while. I’m a Sri Lankan cuisine convert for sure, and definitely not someone who sees it as some island offshoot of the complex motherland. Of course there are similarities to India, but a cuisine is also about how food is enacted, how it functions and the role it plays in daily patterns and social life. And here, Sri Lankan cuisine had me sold.

I could rhapsodise on and on, but, I feel, I would only be rhapsodising endlessly about what are variations on common themes. So, instead of some kind of blow-by-blow account – I’ll leave that to moments of personal remembering (there’ll be many) – I offer instead reflections on what I consider the key culinary components I picked up from this most wondrous adventure.

Eating in vs. eating out

Lonely Planet makes the observation that, completely at-odds to other Asian nations, there is not (yet) a great culture of eating out in Sri Lanka. Therefore, eating in at your guesthouse is often your best bet.

I don’t know that this observation holds as true as it implies. It is true that we found more limited options right across the country, but we never had any trouble finding local eateries serving locals eating. True, they did seem to close early – one stark difference between Sri Lanka and India is the calm quiet of most places post-about-9pm – but we’re not Argentinians or fancy Europeans who eat at 10pm. Ain’t nobody got time for that!

However, in saying this, I’m all for eating in, especially when this means being served ‘mother’s cooking’, and mother’s cooking is always best (we all know that). Some of our best meals were unquestionably in-house.

Breakfast

Ahh, the most important meal of the day!

We swung between self-catering oats with milk and bananas (sometimes you need a kind of reassuring familiarity and routine), and eating local breakfasts in-house.

Sri Lankan breakfasts, with similarities to their South Indian counterparts, are culinary marvels. Our sugar-ladden cereal fixation needs a serious overhaul! Simple, yet endlessly varied (each cook has their own recipes, remember), it consists of dal, coconut (pol) sambal, and some kind of rice and/or coconut-based bread to mop it all up (roti, dosa, idly, etc.).

Served with tea, sometimes coffee, and often fruit (pineapple, banana and watermelon being most common), it’s a delicious set up, and always saw us through to lunch. Even better was when it came with pani pol, a pancake stuffed with coconut and jaggery (a darkly delicious unrefined sugar). My heart always slightly sank when we were served an omelette and toast-based Western breakfast, however nice it may have been.

The one great unique component is the hopper, a rice & coconut-based pancake but cooked in hopper pans to make them like little cups of heaven. They come in egg version, with a joyous golden egg at its centre, and also the string hopper, less cup like, but a round mound of squidgy noodles. However they come, they’re a perfect addition.

Drinks

Tea is phenomenal, of course. Drink it white, drink it black, sweetened and not; drink pots and pots of it. I’ve been a tea + milk drinker my whole life, but I came to really enjoy black tea.

Coffee was a bit of a different story. We didn’t find a single worthy café-style coffee anywhere in the country although, admittedly, I barely bothered looking and just adapted to local options, to avoid inevitable disappointment.

I almost gave up on Ceylon coffee too, after my own aborted attempt at making a cuppa in Sigiriya. However, our last two places served us pots of the stuff, and it was magic; lusciously dark, with a deep flavour all of its own, and made just that bit more wonderful with milk and sugar.

We didn’t drink a lot of alcohol, but the local Lion beer really hit the spot when served chilled in a chilled glass. The local spirit arrak, with notes of whisky smokiness, is also worth trying and rather cheap from alcohol stores (about NZD16 bucks a bottle).

Soda water was available everywhere and became our go to over sugary or chemically-enhanced soda. In saying that, the local Elephant House ginger beer, so much more gingery than our stuff (same goes for the gingernuts; get into them), was enjoyed quite a few times.

Woodapple, fresh and juiced.

Otherwise juices and lassis are the way to go. Mango, pineapple, watermelon, lime, even carrot and lime, were all wonderfully alive. The pick of the bunch for me was definitely woodapple. I described it elsewhere as apple with a tart, tamarind edge. A second, fresh, glass, had me thinking it was almost sherry/port-like. How fancy. The fresh experience I described here.

Bakeries and ‘short eats’

These are the heart of Sri Lankan snacking. These people know how to snack.

We didn’t consume a lot of baked goods, partly because same-same-but-different, but also, I have to confess, partly because of snobbery about the quality of baking from countries without a rich bounty of a available dairy. In fairness to me, this is also based on a lot of disappointment on previous travels (and see my point above about coffee).

However bakeries are everywhere and doing a roaring trade. What we tried was carbrageously yummy. There’s evidently a strong baking tradition on the island. Colonial period? I did particularly enjoy a couple of lump cakes. I couldn’t find anything about them online, but I suspect they came from a drop cake-like recipe flavoured with jaggery, given the vaguely coconut-sweet flavour (and the colour!)

Lump cake!

But short eats is where it’s at for me. A delicious, delectable range of small fried snacks, often centred around vege curry contained in some kind of moorish wrapping. From egg and potato curry samosas, with a heavenly crumbed coating, to vege curry roti parcels, savoury doughnuts and fried lentil discs (vadai), these glorious morsels are available literally everywhere. We mostly ate these in and around our transport journeys and at some historical sites, and they were uniformly delicious and comforting, even cold and clearly the end-of-day stragglers.

Short eats 4EVAH

One thing though: if you are served a plate of short eats, don’t panic, and don’t assume it’s a challenge. You’ll pay for only what you consume. Apparently it’s common practice in some parts/places. It happened to us once, and we overate; not that we regretted it, not one little bit! But don’t feel obliged to be so greedily grateful.

The many faces of Kottu…

Kottu and Lamprais: the indigenous masterpieces

Kottu I’d seen on TV; lamprais I read about just before we came. Kottu is ubiquitous; lamprais is sadly far less common.

Kottu is genius. Roti or string-hopper, chopped and turned into ribbons of carblisciousness, cooked on the hotplate with your choice(s) of meat/vege/egg/cheese, and served with a curry gravy for you to do the dousing. It’s street food mixed with comfort food mixed with a use-everything imperative.

It’s utterly delicious, and I rarely failed to inhale the entire plateful, even when I thought I couldn’t possibly indulge the pile put before me. That familiar clack-clack-clack sound, of knife on hotplate, which followed us across the land, has now entered the banks of sounds that makes me feel instantly hungry.

If I were to try and hazard an intelligent guess, I would say that the rice and curry ‘packets’, served up across the land as takeaway lunch on-the-go for busy types, may well have their origin in a dish like lamprais.

Foolishly (colonially, even) thinking that it was simply a reverse Anglicisation of its English name, lump rice, lamprais actually evolved during the Dutch colonial period and takes its name from lomprijst (“packet of food”). In its original form, it featured a three-meat curry, ash plantain curry, eggplant curry, a frikkadel (meatball), fish paste, maybe a fried whole-boiled egg, and specially prepared rice, baked and served encased in banana leaf. Sublime.

Evidently, at least the three times we tried it, lamprais has undergone some evolution, although there is evidently still some kudos to be gained from maintaining some allegiance to the original. I was happy, more than happy, to have it any way it was coming to me. I just wish I could have had it more often. There are some similarities, in its evolved form, to the truly ubiquitous rice and curry, but nothing beats an all-in-one meal cooked in banana leaf. The gentle flavour imparted by the encasing is utterly unique, as any tropical islanders or cultures with similar dishes would attest.

Lamprais, arrack cocktail, and fruit; heaven.

Curry and rice/rice and curry

And that brings us to the truly national dish, the bland-sounding but infinitely surprising rice and curry. I was a little bit skeptical at first, if I’m honest, but I was quickly won over. Now I could be said to be evangelical!

The genius of rice and curry is that you just order it. There is no thinking and barely any decisions required. It would either arrive, a collection of whatever the day’s curries were, or, if a so-called buffet, you needed to choose which rice, meat (if you were having), and then vege curries you wanted; a bit like those awful Chinese fill-your-own takeaways of yesteryear, which is an awful comparison, but you get the idea.

And what you get is always a surprise and anything other than generic. Firstly, of course, every cook has their own recipes, their own masalas and spice mixtures. No two chicken curries, or bean curries, or even dals for that matter, were ever the same.

Most of all, it felt that, with each curry & rice I ate, I added more new tastes, more new vegetables and dishes to my palate; curries that I probably wouldn’t have ordered on their own. I’m talking about vegetables like loofah, banana flower, jackfruit, leek/spring onion, amberella, cabbage, winged bean, bitter gourd, plantain banana, and baby aubergine, as well as ones more familiar, like cassava, potato, pumpkin and beans.

I was never any less that completely satisfied with rice and curry. It provided endless variety and tastes and, to me, builds in an inspired flexibility that responds to, well, whatever there is to hand, whatever is in season; and that is the real essence of an ingenious cook.

Just finally, there are a few things I picked up that I would describe as key differences between Sri Lanka and India (although, rightfully, India’s cuisine is really cuisines). Firstly, the curries are singular and ubiquitous, similar to curries in Fiji. We did come across dishes like Jaffna-style, and I’m sure there are regional differences, but it was essentially chicken curry, or pork curry, or fish curry, etc. There weren’t kormas and vindaloos and so on.

A lot of coconuts are used throughout the cuisine, similar to what we saw in South India, but seemingly more so. Coconut in dal is a dream. We also found a lot of dishes had a pronounced use of pepper, which was a lovely surprise, and unexpected.

Completely unsurprisingly, there is a lot of seafood here. What was more surprising was the use of dried fish. It appeared as a background (or more pronounced) note in curries, and is a key ingredient in the utterly addictive lunu miris, a chilli condiment with a base of roasted chilli, dried fish, fried onion, salt and lime juice pounded into the most gorgeous dry paste.

I’m sure there’s much more to Sri Lankan food and cuisine, but this hopefully gives you enough of an idea to realise Sri Lankan cuisine can certainly be considered distinct and unique. I look forward to learning, cooking and eating more when we return home.