Saturday, February 19, 2011

Food Fit for a Maharaja

I've just returned from my second trip to India. After my last trip I posted about the Sikh langar that I toured, which you may recall is the practice of a community kitchen and communal eating. This time I thought I should talk more about the diverse foods and dining customs found in this lovely country.

Rambagh Palace Dining
The food on the Indian subcontinent, now more commonly called South Asia as opposed to East Asia, is best characterized by their extensive use of various spices, herbs and vegetables, as well as the widespread practice of vegetarianism. As I was traveling with a vegetarian colleague, I had even more opportunity to explore just how wonderful vegetarian food can be. Each group of Indian cuisines includes a wide range of dishes and differing cooking techniques. It varies from region to region, and even by province, and reflects the demographics of the ethnically-diverse people found there. The differences come from local culture and geographical location based on whether a region is close to the sea, desert or the mountains. Indian cuisine is also seasonal. I learned much of this from an informative waiter at the Rambagh Palace hotel in Rajasthan, where the menu is laid out by region (main dining room shown above, and our table shown up close below.)

If you happen to be a fan of British television programming like I am, you know that the Indian cuisine has had a strong influence on that nation. Likewise, India's food has also been influenced by its domination by both the Mughal (Mogul) and British empires. Of course, its many religions, particularly the Hindu beliefs, have further influenced its foods, cooking styles and dining habits. Because of this, India provides a unique blend of various cuisines, something of which is sure to delight your taste buds.

People in India consider a hearty breakfast important. They generally prefer to drink tea or coffee with this meal. North Indian people prefer roti and a vegetable dish, accompanied by pickles and some curd. (Roti is a bread made from stoneground wholemeal flour that it is unleavened. The famous Indian bread naan, in contrast, is a yeast-leavened bread.). As I was in New Delhi, this was common at breakfast, although in all good quality hotels, more traditional British breakfast items were also available. The people of western India like a chickpea dish called dhokla and milk. As I have yet to visit South India, I can't comment on what breakfast dishes they prefer. Lunch in India usually consists of a main dish with rice and/or roti. It typically includes two or three kinds of cooked vegetables. Curd and two or more sweets are also included. Dinner is considered the main meal of the day, and the whole family gathers for the occasion. It may be followed by dessert, ranging from fruit to traditional desserts. Some Indians consume a particular leaf after meals which they say aids in digestion, although I did not try this as it is best to avoid any raw foods in India. (On my last trip I had a bad case of "Delhi-Belly" from not following this simple rule.) Indian families also gather and enjoy an evening snack to talk over the events of the day while drinking tea.

Tea is a common beverage throughout India; the finest varieties are grown in Darjeeling and Assam. It is often prepared as masala chai, wherein the tea leaves are boiled in a mix of water, spices such as cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, and ginger, and large quantities of milk to create a thick, sweet, milky concoction. Different varieties and flavors of tea are prepared to suit different tastes all over the country. I was told however, that coffee is a more popular beverage in some southern parts of India.

Bukhara Restaurant

While most of our meals were taken in upper-scale restaurants, there are several customs associated with traditional dining, which you often find when being hosted by locals eager to show off their time-honored customs or at restaurants like Bukhara (in New Delhi) which specialize in 'frontier dining'.  These meals are often eaten while seated either on the floor or on very low stools or cushions, much as we did for traditional meals in South Korea.  Food at these events is most often eaten without cutlery, using instead the fingers of the right hand. Often roti or naan is used to scoop the curry without allowing it to touch the hands. Other etiquette includes eating with one hand only – preferably the right hand – and letting the food touch only two fingers.  We were fortunate to get into Bukhara which is famed for its signature kebabs such as Sikandari Raan (marinated whole leg of lamb) and Murgh Malai Kebab (creamy chicken kebabs).  I also enjoyed it because it has an open display kitchen, where meat and vegetables hang from swordlike kebab spears and are cooked in a tandoor (clay oven) until amazingly tender.  However, among the middle and upper classes throughout India, as well as in most restaurants, individuals are seated on chairs, and spoons and forks are now commonly used.
While visiting the Taj Mahal we stayed at the lovey Oberoi Amarvilas and dined at Esphahan, which serves traditional Indian cuisine.  There we not only sat at the kitchen-view table, but enjoyed thali, a large plate with samplings of different regional dishes accompanied by a yogurt dip called raita, breads such as naan and roti, and rice.  I was tempted to purchase a set of thali metal dishes, but wasn't sure my luggage would accommodate yet more souvenirs! 

Inevitably after visiting India someone will ask if I had a good curry. Curry is a generic term used in Western culture to describe a variety of spiced dishes found in India with the consistency of a stew with a brown, gravy-like sauce. However, there is no particular ingredient or spice that makes something curry. The word 'curry' is not a Hindi-Urdu word. What we call curry is meat and vegetables cooked with a gravy and served with rice. With that said, you find that curry is eaten in almost all parts of the India and south and east Asia, and flavors very widely based on local ingredients and tastes.  The word 'curry' appears on most menus that are translated into English.

If you haven't been to India, I would recommend it but only for the seasoned traveler.  It's likely not the first international trip you would want to consider, as it is still developing and can be somewhat challenging to navigate.  But for those of you who have seen most of Europe and parts of East Asia, India is highly recommended.  On my next visit, I hope to tour the southern part of this beautiful country and to learn more about the region's history and its many customs and cuisines.

Bukhara Tandoori Selections

No comments:

Post a Comment