Hey gang, remember me?
I promise I have heaps of excuses for abandoning you, my beloved readers–and most said excuses begin with “I had a massage appointment…” and end with “then they invited me to sip wine on the beach.” So please forgive my inability to find an hour or two in the day to write about my adventures in the eastern world. I seem to have discovered this whimsical thing called Casual Employment here in Australia, and as it turns out, I love it.
It may help you feel better to know that I did just begrudgingly abandon my station of holding down the neon float in my swimming pool, sipping fresh squeezed orange juice to come in and write this post. I was staring at the pulp in my OJ which reminded me of southern Spain and the orange trees that line the streets in Sevilla. Then I started daydreaming about coconut water in Mexico and smoothies Italy which led me to the jolting memory of this photo of watermelons in Agra, India and… oh yeah, that blog post I still haven’t written.
So prepare yourselves for my final account of India. And this one folks, is all food… masala, turmeric, cumin and gurgling bellies. Unlike my “Foodie’s Guide through Italy,” this bit is slightly less informative and perhaps more like the “Idiot’s Guide to Acid Reflux.” And I must warn you, most of the time I had no idea what I was eating and if I asked, the answer was so indiscernible that I would generally nod and say “mmmm, dhanyavad.” Ironically, an Indian nod of understanding is an ear-to-shoulder motion, which to me looked an awful lot like the motion for, “Whatever.” A fitting gesture for my general lack of understanding.
So if you can bear with my broken attempts to describe the ambiguous cuisine that is Indian fare, I’ll do my best to emulate the incredible world of spice and oh-so-good belly aches.
These little nuggets of gold are called Khandvi.
And the best thing about this photo is that I consumed these gems in the home of a local in Chandigarh, Northern India. I could simply tell you based on appearance that they’re springroll-like creations with sweet coconut shavings and poppy seeds for crunch, but that would not only be an inaccurate description, it would be an injustice to the tastiness. When I asked how they were made, Sangeeta replied “gram flour and yoghurt.” Again, the whole “I’m confused but pretend to understand” shoulder nod, and a smile. So, when I got back to the world of wifi in the hotel I Googled gram flour. Apparently, gram flour is meal made from garbanzo beans (or chickpeas) and it’s mixed with yoghurt (which is more like a confusingly delicious liquid, curdled, sour cream). The mixture is slow cooked into a dough, cooled and cut before being rolled into this bizarre scroll of moist, tender garbanzo goodness. It’s drizzled in a mild, yet tangy juice of sorts, topped with fresh herbs, poppy seeds and perfectly juicy gems of pomegranate.
And now you’re lost. I know. It’s impossible to describe the food I inhaled for a month in India but I’m doing my darndest.
Now, on to the king of snacks. This is the Chuck Norris of Indian street food. The Samosa saw all other street food and said “kiss my deep fried pastry fools, I’m stuffed with molten spiced potatoes AND I come with sweet chili dipping sauce!”
The rest just can’t compete, I’m afraid. It sounds simple enough, but until you have a Samosa in India, you just can’t understand the sincerity of this love affair. In general, I find myself indifferent to the common potato. Sure, I like french fries and yes, if it’s covered in cheese and fried pig bits I’ll deal with a baked potato. But when I smelled the Samosas cooking on the side of the road in Delhi, something changed. I watched the little man with his filthy bare Flintstone feet propped up on the potato crate. He was stirring the spiced potatoes colored yellow with overwhelming amounts of turmeric and cardamom. He stuffed the hand-cut triangles of dough with spicy, smelly potatoes while next to him, an enormous cast-iron wok simmered to the rim with oil and deep-fried pockets of glory. Next thing I know, I’ve thrown him 10 Rupees and hinged my jaw like a broken Pez dispenser awaiting the hot pocket of starchy indigestion. Completely worth it. And so we’re clear, 10 Rupees is 16 cents American. Did I say I love India?
Throughout my stay, I maintained a clear distance from anything fresh or possibly sprinkled in the water of India known to produce “Delhi belly.” But against my best efforts to stuff my face with fried, battered veggies, I still managed to get a good case of bathroom-floor-itis from the tomato uttapam pictured below.
Uttapam is one of the simpler dishes, best described as a savory pancake batter that’s been showered in masala spiced vegetables before being plated and served. Heaven knows what that mischievous dish of curry vinaigrette is at the top left corner of the plate, but I’m thinking it may have been the culprit behind my night of food terrors. I can’t be certain, but the way it sneakily appeared next to my uttapam like an innocent side note leads me to believe it was lethal.
But I survived another day and moved on to yet another gravy boat of carbs and deliciousness. Most meals I would sit down and stare at the jumbled alphabet and hindi symbols on the menu until I found the vegetarian option. The language barrier is small considering many Indian’s speak English, but that doesn’t make the words Malai Kafta on a menu any less mysterious just because it’s written with letters rather than script. The waiter would approach, I would look up in a panicked moment of indecisive confusion, point to something that had my favorite letters in it and say, “ummm, theeee..?…mmmaa…um,” through a quivering grin. I’ve never felt more culturally lost in my life. But just as Indians are the loveliest people I’ve encountered, they always reassure that you’ve made and excellent choice as they shoulder nod in cheerful hospitality.
Then you look down at your silver bowl of strangeness they call Malai Kofta, which is some form of dumpling, though nothing like Nannie’s dumplings cooked in cast-iron with pulled chicken. This dumpling is almost grainy, but in a good way. It’s mushy, but in a great way. It’s gooey, but in an unbelievable way. Then it’s bathed in some breed of tomato curry gravy and you’re then supposed to plunge four knuckles and a fist full of na’an (flatbread) into the dish in an effort to eat it. I love a world of hand-eating.
And speaking of na’an, I did try my hand at making Indian flatbread called Paratha, which is a layered dough flatbread stuffed with roasted vegetables. One sassy and very lovely teacher from the school, Kiran, took a couple of us home with her one evening to teach us a few basic Indian cooking techniques.
But after much laughter and intense instruction from Kiran, we did successfully produce a few lovely edible Parathas. Kiran’s enormous family welcomed us into their home and praised our excellent skills as they scarfed down the breads and pickles, and for a moment we genuinely believed we were masters of Indian chapati.
And this is the reason I travel. I put off my debts and spend all my savings so that I can sit on a bed with friends from around the globe, eating homemade Parathas looking at rhinestone bangles and sharing stories. I leave my home for long stretches of time to add members to my family in subcontinents full of spices and bean flour. And thanks to the lovely Kiran, I’ll add one more recipe to the “Breads” section of my cookbook back home in Georgia.