India and I have a very complicated relationship. Having spent a good few years within its bosom, I must admit that it is a country that is difficult to love but once you learn to love it, like an injured stray kitten who has been so deprived of love, it will open up to you in ways that only damaged creatures who have so much love to give, will do.
The sound of Sanskrit chants in the morning, the sight of colorfully clad people and brightly colored walls adorned with posters, the smell of sandalwood and jasmine adorning women’s hair, the taste of ghee sweets, its complex cuisine, its spices – I run back into its arms at every chance I get. If you know how to love it, you will also get to discover its treasures, the many nooks and corners holding many a wonderful secrets. This country will unfold to you like a love letter if only you’d care.
The food of this country, much like its people, are vibrant. It is earthy and grounded and yet colorful in its own right and very, very real. While Indian food as a category is vast beyond covering in just one article, my attempt here is to capture the essence of the day to day life of this beautifully rustic culture via food and drink, the life juice on which it thrives.
I kid you not, I think their engines run on tea! You see them at every corner, in tuk tuks, in street nooks, in front of hotels, hospitals, sitting on the floor on pavements just sipping away tea. You can see by the color of it (tea is usually drunk in clear glasses or metallic tumblers) that it is very strong, thick and milky. None of that weak milk tea of the Britishers for this nation. Tea leaves are boiled in milk with copious sugar to make this milky concoction which is sipped at in complete leisure. Plain tea without milk is almost never heard of, coffee on the other hand is enjoyed moderately. My time in India has also cultivated in me the habit of boiling my tea leaves in milk for a more intense flavor. A British would be horrified the way we have our tea.
I’m also quiet fond of this Badam milk (literally translated to almond milk). It is rich and creamy and flavored with almond often scattered with almond flakes and pistachio flakes on top. When I say badam milk (almond milk) do not make the mistake of taking it as milk extracted from almonds. Sure there are bits of almond in there but it is a dairy milk, enriched with almond, no more no less. The people of this region do love their sweets and therefore the badam milk too is very sweet, sweet enough to qualify as dessert.
The breakfast run
This here is a typical roadside boutique where the common working force has their breakfast. Breakfast is usually had standing around the said joint and food on offer are poori, a whole wheat flour roti deep fried in oil, chapathi, a whole wheat flat bread or parata, a wheat roti that is flaky and oily. Poori, the papadam-like roti is served with a curry made of chickpeas and potatoes, green and white coconut chutneys while parata and chapathi are served with the usual coconut chutneys and vegetable curries consisting of dhal, brinjal and potato all cooked together with a hint of garam masala. A common sight one can behold on the roads are men holding oversized oil spoons standing over massive kadais full of oil, busy frying off poori which disappear as soon as they land, all fried, golden and puffed on the counter.
Another type of breakfast especially popular in southern India is idly, a steamed cake made of undu dhal and rice flour which is served with a mixed vegetable curry and coconut chutney. Also served alongside are vadais, a donut shaped savory undu wadai with bits of onion, green chili and curry leaf which is also served with a green coconut chutney.
All this is of course, washed down with a steaming tumbler of chai, all standing.
This is a nation that is forever “Tiffin ready”. From fresh fruit to tidbits like samosas, cut fruit and other “tiffin” items, you can find something to eat here any time of the day.
Boiled peanuts served with sliced onions and grated carrots is a popular street food here. Walking down the street you would come across so many vendors pushing carts selling fragrant boiled peanuts in paper cones topped with some salt and chili and a generous sprinkling of onions and shredded cabbage.
These little samosas are also very popular. Deep fried in hot oil, these little samosas are usually filled with vegetables and are served in a paper bag on the roadsides. This particular samosa has a thin, crispy wrapper whereas the usual samosas are larger and sport a thicket, wheat flour batter which is then filled with a mix of potatoes, chickpeas and other vegetables. These are usually served with a side of tomato ketchup to dip into.
Another unique specialty that I’m particularly fond of is pani puri which is basically a papadam (puffed crunchy wheat pocket) which is served with two types of liquids – one sour and one spicy. The assembly happens in such a way that you puncture the pani puri from the top, fill the void with the liquids and pop the entire thing into your mouth at which the little crunchy pod explodes as you bite into it and floods your senses with its complexity of flavor. Delightful? Yes!
Coconuts are in plenty along the roads and one often sees locals plunging their knives into these and tasting their sweet cool juice. It only makes sense as it can get quite hot in this climate. Sugar cane juice is also popular in this area as men turning hand churned machines which squeeze out the juice from one end and eject the sugar cane husks from the other end are quite abundant on the roadsides.
Also popular are fruits – grapes,pineapple, gooseberry, mango, watermelon and the like which are usually found cut and kept in take away punnets along the roads. India is also known for its pomegranates on carts which are stacked upon like giant rubies along the road.
Dosas is a wide subject. From paper dosas, ghee dosas and masala dosas to even dried fruit dosas, the world of dosas expand beyond your wildest imagination.
Dosas are basically undu flour bases crunchy crepes which are either served plain or filled with a variety of fillings. From paneer (cottage cheese) to potato, cheese to meats, the dosas vary in flavor as per their filling. My favorite is the plain dosa or the ghee dosa which is served with coconut chutney and a vegetable curry, but really, you don’t need any curries to gobble that entire thing up. Ghee dosas almost have this cheese like quality to them that is so hard to resist that I eventually usually end up putting down two of them at one go.
Rice is a staple in this country of countless culinary triumphs. While the rice dishes and types are myriad, my absolute favorite has to be the thali meal, quite unique to South India.
I love how the thali meal is served. It comes with a whole host of tiny aluminium tumblers filled with various curries and condiments on a massive aluminium plate which gives plenty of room for mixing the rice. Rice is served separately. The usual culprits of the thali meal are the rasam, a thin soup of sorts which amalgamates a number of spices (this is known to aid with the digestion), a mixed vegetable curry, dhal, curd, buttermilk, a fried chili and a humongous papaddam fried to perfection.
The other one of my absolute favorites is the biriyani, a flavorsome rice that comes in chicken, mutton and vegetable varieties. It is usually serves with a side of boiled egg and a raita, made up of sliced onions and curd. My favorite is the mutton biriyani which comes with succulent, melt-in-the-mouth mutton pieces which also gives the rice a wonderful gamey flavor.
The color, the vibrance
India is a vibrant country and I dare say a feminine one. It has its moods and moments and also so much of beauty in the details that you can often miss if you are not observant enough. Garlands of flours – roses, jasmine, flowers of colors imaginable adorn the streets as the women here love to adorn their hair with the fragrant flowers while adorning their foreheads with sandalwood paste. Color and vibrancy are part and parcel of life as the sarees that adorn these women. There’s never a dull moment in this land of culture, color and wonderful vivacity that permeates every single aspect of life.