Category Archives: food and cooking

Food is fun!

Indian food is so diverse, and delicious to my taste, it’s hard not to eat too much of it. The ingredients, the processing and cooking and serving, all have new and strange aspects. This post is all about food, things I’ve learned about or eaten that didn’t fit into other posts on India.

1 – Veg and Non-Veg

These are the broad categories people refer to when they are telling what foods they eat, not with quite the same meaning as people in the U.S. who might define themselves as Vegetarian, Vegan, Paleo, Gluten-free, Meat and Potatoes, I Eat Everything, etc. Here, Hindus are often “Veg,” meaning they do not eat meat or eggs, because they are Hindus and not for any health-related reasons. Muslims are Non-Veg because they have no religious ban on eating meat in general.

Our family does eat meat and eggs, so we are in the Non-Veg category, but it seems strange to say that, since we do like and eat a lot of vegetables! Hindus who do eat meat would rarely eat beef, and Muslims do not eat pork. Chicken is in abundance, and water buffalo meat, and goat meat, known as mutton.

2 – An example of wonderful Veg food is the Gujarati Thali meal we enjoyed our first night in the mountains, a traditional spread of a variety of dishes taking its name from Gujarat, the Indian state just north of here. We were the only ones in the restaurant from the beginning of our meal until the end, because we arrived so early, 7:45.

You start out with a plate of empty stainless steel bowls, and then the waiters — we had four for the three of us — alternate bringing to the table pots of soups and stews and drinks which they ladle out, and plates of breads hot off the griddle, and as soon as you have eaten half of anything they are back to refill again and again. We found ourselves eating too fast, because they seemed to be urging us on.

Not only did they bring us refills, but they brought new items after a while, which of course we must try, until we were so plumped out we had to turn our eager hosts away, and finally eat the sweet pudding that I failed to take a picture of. I was trying to figure out what was in it — surely those little red threads bleeding orange and yellow into the creamy white must be saffron, but our waiters said not. I still don’t believe them; there was a bit of a language barrier.

3 – Milk

If you are Veg, you can still enjoy dishes like that pudding, which contained a milk product, maybe yogurt. India has become the biggest producer of milk in the world, though the average dairy milks only four cows and/or water buffaloes. “One of the main reasons India is the highest producer of milk is that it imports a lot of European cows and cross-breeds them with local varieties. But the most crucial reason is that India has had a successful decades-long programme to source milk from small farmers through cooperatives.”

Because Kate doesn’t trust the regulators of these little dairies, she buys milk in aseptic boxes, or cartons of pasteurized. But most Indian households take milk home from little shops that get it fresh daily in half-liter plastic bags, such as I saw when I went out shopping with Kareena. This smiling lady was just receiving the morning’s shipment. Kareena says they boil the milk in a pot when they get it home, and store it in the fridge in the same pot, which they don’t use for any other foods, I think mostly so that the flavors of chili and cumin won’t get into the milk.

4 – Ice cream  I love ice cream, and Indian ice cream is all good, in my experience. In addition to ice cream in interesting flavors they have  kulfi, which is just slightly different, always served in a cone shape. I have eaten chickoo ice cream and sitafal, or custard apple ice cream. Which carries me into the topic of:

3 – Fruit

The chikoo, called sapodilla some places in the world, has been described as malt-y, and Kate and I agreed that the ice cream is so. I ate some fresh custard apple fruit and it was indeed creamy and custardy. I wanted to finish the whole thing. But be prepared for lots of finger-lickin’. As it’s mostly seeds, I think the idea of making ice cream from the pulp was inspired. Custard apple is the Indian version of the cherimoya.

5 – Rose and Pistachio

These are two of my favorite exotic flavors. Back home, I have made an Indian tapioca pudding flavored with both. So when I had a choice of kulfi flavors, I chose pistachio. And the same weekend, after our sweaty stairclimbing hike we stopped in an eclectic restaurant called The German Bakery, where I saw on the menu a Turkish Rose shake. Without a doubt I would order that! And I drank two lemon ginger iced teas as well — I was a little dehydrated and they were small, after all.

6 – Spicy food

Yes, Indians do like to add the heat to many foods. At The German Bakery, Kate ordered a side of Garlic Chana, or chickpeas, for us to share. They were really hard to stop eating!

Not only do Indians like spicy flavors generally, but there are particularly Indian blends of spices that make things taste right to their palates. So they adjust western recipes to make them fit. For example, I was munching on some Sizzling Jalapeno Nacho Crisps that looked like many versions of tortilla chips you would find in the U.S. But they seemed a little odd… When I looked at the ingredient list I found that they had ginger in the spice mix. We would not think of that as a “nacho” flavor.

7 – Sweets

Gulab jamun are balls with a doughnut like consistency, swimming in syrup. They were offered as part of a buffet we ate recently, and we ladled a couple on to our dish of butterscotch ice cream — a pleasantly sticky experience. For once I had left my camera in my pocket, so I found a picture online of gulab jamun.

And for beauty of sweets, you can’t beat this collection that Kate bought at the same store where I was buying dried apricots. Lots of pistachio here, too:

8 – Salads

I did not expect to eat salad in India, because of the possibility of contamination of raw vegetables. At home, though, we do disinfect all of our produce as soon as it comes into the house, and when eating out or ordering in, it turns out that there are many restaurants with excellent reputations regarding the safety of their menu items. Word gets around among expats about the restaurants whose food has never been known to make anyone sick.

So I have eaten salads several times, and they were some of my favorites ever. The Indian chefs seem to be creative in ways that jive with my taste preferences. They don’t overuse the ingredients that I get tired of on the U.S. salad menus, like cranberries, red onion, and avocado.

One I ate was called “Bam Bam Thank You Lamb,” and was made of Romaine and iceberg lettuces, dried tomatoes, black rice, roasted cashews, feta cheese and braised lamb.

The salad below included arugula, chickpeas, puffed rice, amaranth, cherry tomatoes, sprouts, pomegranate, lotus seeds, and feta. Isn’t that wild?

9 – Vegetables, vegetables

I love visiting the neighborhood market and seeing every sort of vegetable imaginable. It’s kind of like this in California, but more expensive, and not as fun somehow. And it’s a joy to watch Kareena cook. She roasted eggplants completely on top of the stove, just turning them every half a minute for fifteen minutes or so.

Others have noted that Indian food is not beautiful or easily presentable as a visual work of art. There are lots of basically brown items. So I think the eye appeal often comes from the shapes and textures, and the aromas and tastes are definitely sensational! Kate and I were talking about this the other night as we lingered over dessert at a South Indian restaurant, a little bowl of creamy, golden brown pudding we shared, and mused over what the ingredients might be.

Eventually we learned from the waiter or figured out ourselves that they were chikoo fruit (photo below of the fresh fruit), millet, milk, ghee, about three golden raisins… a combination that added up to an externally drab affect. But oh, it was lovely, and we did not want it to end.

At home, I have been cooking so little since becoming a widow, compared to my life before that. I wonder if my stay in India will have any effect on my life in the kitchen once I am back again? If I do find that I have been inspired to create something interesting, I’ll let you know here, because food is fun!

snacks and addictions

If you see red stains on the sidewalk in an Indian city, it’s likely they are selling paan nearby. This snack is the only nasty one I am going to write about, so I’m getting it out of the way first. People use it after the manner of chewing tobacco, after they roll some betel or areca nut (Areca catechu) and perhaps tobacco and some other flavors and ingredients into a paan leaf, which is also called a betel leaf (Piper betle) although the plant it comes from is an entirely different species .

I found lots of information online about how healthy the paan leaf is; it is related to kava, so maybe that’s true. But I’m afraid that doesn’t make the whole concoction any less toxic. “Paan (under a variety of names) is … consumed in many other Asian countries and elsewhere in the world by some Asian emigrants, with or without tobacco. It is an addictive and euphoria-inducing formulation with adverse health effects.”

Kate pointed out these paan preparers to me and that made me curious enough to read more about the whole thing. In some places paan is outlawed because the chewers often spit on the sidewalk and it makes an unsightly red mess. It is possible to find recipes in which the betel nut part is optional, so you could eat a non-toxic version if you’re interested. Let me know and I will ask Kate where she found it. 🙂

So, that’s usually a bad sort of snack to be in the habit of eating, but Indians are great snackers all around, and you are in luck if you are looking for something spicy and crunchy. There must be a hundred snacks in this category that I haven’t tasted, but I’ll tell you about a small sample.

This flaky stuff below, poha chivda, is the first such food I encountered. The main ingredient is rice made into crisp flakes about the size of regular rolled oats, to which other very spicy ingredients are added. I can’t personally eat it tidily other than with a spoon out of a cup, but I think it must commonly be eaten out of hand, too. I found a recipe for it which I am linking to just so you can see a better photo of this snack that I love. The main ingredient would no doubt be hard to find in the U.S.:

Bitter gourd is battered and deep fried to make a food that is even more fiery than the above. Eating a whole 2″ diameter ring of this snack keeps me warm for quite a while:

Outside the famous Mary Mount church at Bandra Fort is a snack stand that caters both to tourists and to church people who might need one thing or another as they go in to worship and/or come out hungry:

We came upon a coconut stand, and Tom bought a fresh coconut that was served with a straw. Then he was given a scoop made from a slice of the fruit, with which to scrape out the creamy pulp that was left after we drank the coconut water.

Another favorite of Tom’s is sev puri, which is sold at the same snack stands as pani puri which I mentioned before. I have eaten it two or three times, when we stop on the street and two or three of us stand at the counter and share one of these savory bowls. I know, it looks a mess, but you get to watch it be assembled from several ingredients that combine to deliver a flavor punch with crunch on top. Highly recommended!

The moong dal snack below was offered in our hotel room last week and I have no idea what it is like because I’m saving it for something or other:

So far, the store pictured below was my favorite food shopping experience, for the large variety of dried fruit, snacks and sweets available there. Here Kate and friend Krishna are trying to get the attention of the busy clerks:

And it was at this store that I was introduced to the amazing dried apricots, no bigger than 1 1/2″, with pits intact. The flavor is sunshine bright, and they make a nice little nibble.

It would be easy to become addicted — but I’m counting them as health food!

Indian cooking – Egg Bhurji

On my first morning in India I ate a spicy scrambled egg dish that I loved very much. It had been cooked the day before by the housekeeper Kareena. Eggs that are delicious and cooked 24 hours ahead? That’s a recipe I need. I asked if she would show me how to make those “breakfast eggs” sometime, and she said she’d be happy to. Yesterday was my lucky day.

When I noticed how her kurta was the same color as the onions,
I knew I must take pictures.

And I took notes on the process, and the approximate amount of ingredients. It’s essentially a spicy Indian version of a vegetable scramble, with variations as many as there are cooks, as you can see for yourself if you want to browse recipes online.

My teacher went to the refrigerator to get one of the slender green Indian chilis, and was disappointed to find them all gone. She said she could make the dish with dried chili powder for us, but if she were making it at home she’d just wait until she went to the market again; because fresh is best.

 

This is the powder she substituted>>

I read that if you want to approximate this dried chili powder you can blend 3 parts paprika to one part cayenne.

 

 

This morning Tom went shopping and resupplied us with chilis, which are here drying after being soaked in a disinfecting bath.

It is amazing how many vegetables are in this dish. Kareena’s style is to make sure all the vegetables are in very small pieces by the time you mix the eggs in. The bright red color comes from the chili powder; what I ate that first morning had been made with a fresh green chili and it wasn’t red at all.

Kareena’s EGG BHURJI

3 small onions, diced small
1 tablespoon fresh curry leaves
2-3 tablespoons oil
1-2 teaspoons turmeric
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 small tomatoes, diced small
1 long thin hot chili, minced (or 1-2 teaspoons Kashmiri chili powder)
½-1 cup fresh cilantro leaves, minced
6 eggs

In a large broad skillet heat the oil, then throw in the whole curry leaves and stir them a few seconds to sizzle before adding the onions. Cook the onions over medium heat until golden brown. You may add the fresh chili pepper at this point, or wait.

Add the tomatoes, turmeric, (chili powder if you didn’t have fresh chili, fresh chili if you waited), and salt. Stir and cook together for a few minutes, then put a lid on and cook for another 10 minutes or so to break down the tomatoes. Mash them some more with the back of the wooden spoon.

Break the eggs into the pan and scramble with all the vegetables until partially cooked; add most of the cilantro, saving some for garnish. Scramble until all cooked and crumbly. Taste and adjust salt if necessary. Serve, sprinkling with remaining cilantro.

The best way to eat these eggs is with one of Kareena’s chapatis fresh off the griddle, but a pile of Bhurji is great all by itself, too.

When I return home, I’d like to have a tablecloth after the fashion of Kareena’s kurta for my dining table, so that when I sit down to eat my Anda Bhurji it would all add up to the perfect and colorful Indian breakfast.

Shopping with pani puri.

Tom took me along on his shopping trip yesterday, to a few stores and shops including a multi-story big box that had features of a Super Wal-Mart, Costco, and a department store. The escalators were ramps that accommodated shopping carts, and we visited all the floors and departments, but never found a C-battery or anyone who knew what that was. Tom wasn’t very sure himself, but some new baby equipment wants them. Oh well.

I was fascinated by the many varieties of basmati rice, both packaged and in large bins where women in pretty clothes were scooping up their favorite type. I love basmati rice and used to buy it in 25# bags myself; I came home with a jar of the Brown Basmati.

The packaged rice is one of many products and ads that feature a photo of a famous movie star, often a Khan, or the “Big B,” Amitabh Bachchan. I don’t have a hope of keeping all these celebrities straight, but a couple of them have leading roles in an unusually good Bollywood movie we are currently watching here (over the course of three nights, because it’s close to four hours long): “Lagaan.” Oh, and on the route between the different shops, whose car did our driver point out but that of the very Aamir Khan himself. Mumbai is the center of Bollywood, did you know?

Women were also filling bags with large-crystal sugar from a great bulk bin.

 

 

We ate several pani puri snacks and another type of snack at a stand in the food department of the store. For us to take our fill of those savory treats cost less than 100 rupees which Tom said was about $1.10.

 

From this store we drove to that quiet neighborhood Tom introduced me to on my first day here, where is found their favorite market.

The shopkeepers know at least the names of vegetables and how to count in English so I was able to complete the purchase of some carrots, zucchini, peppers and broccoli while Tom went to the next stand where we found leeks and potatoes from which he is going to make soup.

Are those red carrots really carrots? I’ll cook them today and find out.

We brought all our loot home and then Tom cooked up a big delicious dinner featuring mutton chops, pesto green beans, tomato salad and more. It was the first meal of not particularly Indian food that I’ve had in ten days.

Baby “Raj” had stayed home with his mama. They are eating well and building strength and we are all enjoying the early Getting to Know You period. Well, not quite all: Huckleberry Cat has led a very sheltered life until this point and he doesn’t feel entirely positive about the strange creature who suddenly showed up.

As I write, it is a lazy Sunday afternoon. I’ve been holding a sleeping baby for an hour while chatting with Kate and Tom about so many things India, seeds that could germinate into future blog posts. Now I’m back here typing with two fingers to finish this one. My mind will immediately and irresistibly start gathering threads of images and impressions to weave into the next scrap of cloth I hope to share with you, of this colorful tapestry that is Bombay.