Some years ago I had the amazing opportunity to travel and take a team of 4 to India for 6 weeks. The food was such a big highlight, as you can imagine, that it has changed my life and cooking methods FOREVER! This will be a short piece, with photos of some of the foods you can expect and should definitely try when travelling the land of silk and spice.
Yes, it’s spicy
Allow me to clarify any doubts about the spiciness of the food: they use about 15 chilies in the average curry, for 6 people, plus some fresh ones on the side to go with every few bites. They really like ’em chilies! But. They know you’re a foreigner and in the restaurants you will sometimes hear the waiter telling the cook ‘tourists!’ so they know it should be a couple less. And you can always opt for the less spicy option. I’ve been asked how it measures up to Mexican food, I honestly can’t compare or make a fair judgement as I’ve never been to Mexico and had the real deal.
Let’s start with the basics. Rice is the staple food, and after just 3 weeks of eating rice 3 times a day, you will start missing it too if the routine stopped! Popped rice (like Rice Krispies) in the morning, dal with rice for lunch and curry or veggies with rice in the evening. We lived with a family so not only did we share in their day to day lifestyle but we also had home cooked, traditional meals and sweets everyday. Talk about blessings, I don’t know what we would’ve done without their guidance and bargaining skills in the lesser traveled India! (Communication gap = off the beaten track traveler problems, hehe) Love it!
Side note, when you see ‘Rice’ on the menu in a restaurant, it’s like a whole dish, not a side of rice. It’s got veggies and spices, sometimes fried or with sauce. It’s good. Another thing to keep in mind, when you order, you order for the table, they don’t do ‘this is mine and this is yours’. Be careful not to order too much!
Dal, as I’ve already mentioned, is a very common, daily food, almost a second staple. It’s lentils, which they prepare in a pressure/slow cooker with their amazing spices and other veggies to create a soup, basically, called Sambar. This, same as everything else, is to be eaten with the RIGHT HAND: sit on your left, pour a little Sambar over your rice, enough to form a ball of rice and swoosh it into your mouth. Sounds like fun yet?? You wouldn’t believe how good I got at eating rice with my right hand.
Might not always look like much but it’s ffflavourful!
Next, my personal and all time favourite, MASALA DOSA! Normally enjoyed as a snack or first course but it’s pretty filling.. So, rather finish it before ordering a main meal.
What is it? A big rice flour (I know) pancake with a masala spiced filling containing dal, sometimes with some other veggies as well, (pretty much like Sambar) coconut shavings or -milk, and a choice of either chicken, paneer or aluu. This dish is always accompanied with a tray of sambal (sauces), all three of which I can’t describe other than spicy, mild and firefighter.
Paneer is cheese, like cottage cheese, yet it reminds me more of feta. Aloo is potato. All three options are great, I normally go for the paneer.
Tandoori Chicken is the brightest of red chicken you will ever see! I’m talking redder than Nando’s Peri-Peri.. This roasted chicken dish made it across oceans and most of you already had your (or other) countries’ versions of it. But this is a must in India and used to be such a treat as it was something familiar!
Roti, as many of you know, is Indian bread. They do have toaster bread as well but come on, you’re not going to India to have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich… we had but it was homemade peanut butter =) and we were there for 6 weeks!
Lots of times they will serve roti with the food, which you basically use to grab or scoop the Sambar or curry or whatever. If not, you can always order it as an extra.
They have quite the variety of flat breads, for different dishes and of different ingredients, blowing up or completely flat n crispy, and they all have different names! From Aloopuri (can you guess one of the main ingredients?) to Papadum, a thin and crispy snack or alternative to roti with your food.
You will find lots of new and strange looking veggies and fruit if you take a walk through the streets and in the markets, stuff you’ll most likely eat without even knowing! Before India I had never seen, heard or tasted something like bitter gourd… and we ate it almost everyday there! Don’t be afraid of trying something new, just check out the joint well before buying street food. And always remember to thoroughly wash fruits and veggies under DRINKABLE water!
Also, you will find your fair share of Chinese food in India, even in the South Central province of Chhattisgarh where we were! So, if you’re a big fan, they have everything from noodles to stirfry to spring rolls. Of course, with a little India infused =)
Now, for the desserts
Things to look for: Gulab Jamun, Rasgulla, Jalebi and Barfi
Galub Jamun is a round cake-ish ball, d(r)unk in syrup. To a South African it will taste like a cross between Malva pudding and a koeksister! We made this at the house with the family one day, quite the technical process!
Rasgulla is absolutely amazing if you have a sweet tooth, which you will definitely need for any of India’s sweet treats! This is a spongy ball of paneer, also laid in syrup. Unhealthy and divine!
Jalebi, sounds a little like jellybean, is a batter, deep fried in funny shapes, then soaked in syrup =) also similar to the koeksister.
Barfi is a sweet you’ve probably seen in other countries as well. If you buy a tray of fresh sweets at a local bakery/sweet store, you’ll normally always find a couple in there. What it is: condensed milk + sugar, cooked until it becomes a solid…Yes, very sweet! They come in a variety of flavours, sometimes of fruits or nuts or rose syrup. They’re good, have at least one. And at most, one.
And to finish off a great meal, another tray of spice goodies! This normally consists of fennel, cumin, sugar, salt, ginger or cloves, etc. and this both freshens your breath and helps with digestion. So much better than just a mint candy. Take half a teaspoon of each in you hand and toss it in you mouth, chew, embrace, and swallow. I liked it. Others didn’t.
Now, you’ve had a glimpse of what this amazing country has to offer, it’s time for you to pack your bags fearlessly and go travel India!
Expect many head shakes, handshakes and friendly smiles; a colourful culture to go along with their colourful food!