INDIA - CULINARY DELIGHTS
by Buzz Poole
Indian cuisine is widely considered to be one of the world’s most popular ethnic cuisines, especially in England, where the generic curry is now said to have replaced fish & chips as the national dish. It’s fitting then that I’m writing this fresh off an Air India flight from London to New York. While airline food can never come close to replicating the nuances of fine meals prepared fresh in proper kitchens, taking this flight was a reminder of how vitally important culinary traditions are in India. How many times have you seen airline cuisine described (albeit by its own marketing people) as using an “exotic blend of herbs and spices” that “fires your appetite until you and your taste buds succumb to temptation”? And then Air India’s copy goes on to say that “the seduction is total! … But you will feel no remorse because such sublime experiences are a step closer to spirituality.” Perhaps only with Indian cuisine and culture do such claims about food seem less than preposterous.
Indian culinary traditions are influenced by numerous cultures that date back thousands of years. Although a visit to any Indian restaurant will offer a bewildering selection of curries, the menu will rarely scratch the surface of India’s varied regional cuisines. From the Himalayas to the shores of the Indian Ocean, every area has its own distinctive style of cuisine, defined by the availability of local produce, the local religious customs, and the widely varying traditions of those who settled in their respective regions over the centuries.
I find food the best way to understand and experience a culture. We all have to eat, after all. When you eat and share meals in the places where they originated, not only do you fill your mouth with myriad tastes, but you also get to enjoy the social aspect of eating, just like the locals. This was certainly the case when I first visited India, traveling to Chennai and the coastal southern climes. In that bustling capital of the Tamil Nadu state, I saw streets teeming with vendors hawking delectable dosai (lentil crepes) and upma (a grain/vegetable dish), spiked with pungent chutneys. I was lucky enough to stay in a family’s home for a few days, where “aunty” whipped together spicy tiffin (traditional light lunches or snacks), tempered by her homemade raita (a yogurt-based condiment or side dish). Along the coast, the soothing sambars (lentil curries) and other curries were served atop banana leaves, a perfect match to the tropical atmosphere. And I had discovered this variety in just one small portion of this enormous, diverse region.
A Culinary Tour
On the Indian subcontinent, where food is linked intimately to something approaching the divine, joining a specialist culinary adventure tour is the best way to experience some of the country’s most noteworthy cuisines and cultures.
The itinerary described below is based on the 16-day tour called “A Taste of India,” offered by the Adventure Center’s Imaginative Traveller program. (See end of article for more detail and contact information for this tour.) On such a trip, not only do you eat plenty, but you learn history, not to mention a few cooking tips! Classes are provided exclusively for small groups, so participants get the opportunity to see the demonstrations up-close, ask as many questions as they like, and sample the finished dishes. You also get to eat at specially selected venues, each one offering an experience unique to the region. By following an itinerary that is based around the many different styles of Indian cooking, you find and taste the roots of the regional cultures.
Our itinerary begins in the north, in Delhi, where it is easy to be delivered by affordable flights. The best bet for eating like a local is a visit to Karim’s. Tucked into one of the countless wonderfully chaotic, almost medieval lanes found in the city, this traditional 93-year-old eatery specializes in Mughali cuisine (which originated with the Mughal dynasty, whose last outpost was Delhi). Karim’s is a no-nonsense place. Décor matters not, because there is only one priority there: good food, freshly prepared. Sidle up with the locals for dinner and know what it feels and tastes like to be a denizen of this incredible city.
Of course, no matter where you are, a home-cooked meal is always the best. At the Lamba Tourist Home in the city of Agra, Colonel Lamba and his wife run a laid-back dining experience. Mrs. Lamba prepares a few of her favorite dishes, like pulao, daal (fried rice and lentils), subzi (vegetables) and chicken curry, and the affable Colonel Lamba is more than happy to answer any questions about the ingredients and their preparation.
Rajasthan’s Many Flavors
For a real sense of India’s royal history, the cool courtyards and terraces of Fort Madhogarh (located outside Jaipur, Rajasthan’s capital city) make it feel like you have stepped back in time. Fully garbed in the traditional royal Rajasthani dress, a young woman gives lessons in the local Rajput cooking using the fort’s large kitchens that have been in use for centuries. After the meal, you can even dress up in the traditional Rajasthani styles. The Rajasthani theme continues in nearby Jaipur, where you are treated to a traditional vegetarian feast in a setting meant to evoke villages of yore.
Since love and food are in the air, a meal in Udaipur—known as the City of Lakes, and claimed by many to be Rajasthan’s most romantic city—is an appropriate next stop. While dining at Aamarai, enjoy the magnificent view of the lit city palace and how it reflects off the water.
A different flavor of Rajasthan can be found in Jodhpur, the state’s second largest city, where a number of Indian dishes were invented. Walk the ancient markets where these local specialties abound, like piping hot aloo kachori (fried pastry filled with curried potato) and makhania lassi (a yoghurt drink made with dollops of cream). The lassi will taste like heaven after a day of exploring this city set in the midst of this desert climate. As with all areas, geography dictates diet. I recommend trying kachari mircha curry, made from the “desert melon” known as kachari. This cucumber-like veggie gets dehydrated, providing for an earthy, rich dynamic to this curry.
We then go behind the walls of a Rajput family’s home in Rawla Jojawar, where a special dining experience is to be had in their pleasant garden under rare frangipani trees. The shaded lawns and pool will keep you cool as Vaidehi, the lady of the house, makes a condensed milk sweet with orange segments—an absolute delight.
According to Hindu mythology, the Rajasthani town of Pushkar, one of the five most important Hindu pilgrimage sites, came into being after a swan released by the gods dropped a lotus flower from its beak. Because of its holy status, you eat vegetarian here, but you won’t go hungry while enjoying this town, its lake and the incredibly friendly restaurateurs.
From Street Food to Home Cooking
From India’s vast interior, we jet to the coast, starting in Mumbai (formerly Bombay). Mumbai is one of the world’s largest hubs for international business; the city’s denizens are all about the pursuits of commerce. They are satiated by the incredible street-food culture, which has boomed along with the city. At Chowpatti Beach, one can sample pao bhaji (a spicy stew of mashed vegetables, eaten with hot buttered bread) and crisp gram flour discs eaten with fresh-cut onions, coriander, and a mixture of chutneys.
As wonderful as huge cities can be, a return to the beach-life pace of Goa serves as a most welcome end to this eating tour. The Furtado family welcomes tour visitors into their home for amazing cuisine that embraces fresh-out-of-the-water seafood and echoes the city’s European influences. Chirpy Mrs. Furtado reveals her succulent and tangy prawn balchao (a Goan masala, or spice mix) as well as her traditional, spicy vindaloo, which was introduced to Goa by the Portuguese and is still a Goan specialty. Sweet coconut pancakes make for a fitting end to this Goa dinner, the perfect amalgamation of Western and Indian cuisines.
I’ve never had a meal I didn’t like in India. When you travel like this, paying special attention to the food, the range and variety of offerings is impressive. Even more impressive, however, is realizing that only a small portion of India’s taste treats are found in the large swaths of the country described here. It’s a good thing there is always that next trip, and its meals!
FOR MORE INFORMATION: The experiences described here are all part of “A Taste of India”—a 16-day Imaginative Traveller program offered by Adventure Center. Cost of the program begins at $1,610 on a land only basis. For full details concerning this tour, go to www.adventurecenter.com , or call 800-973-1318.