Friday, March 20, 2009

Indian Cuisine

Was there any doubt that I would be gorging myself in India?

I remember my first introduction to Indian food. Having moved with my family to Singapore I was confronted by a very different lifestyle to the one I had grown accustomed to in Australia. What shocked me the most was the amazing difference in the food and the attitude towards food. Spice wasn't something to be had everynow and again, it was a MUST with every meal. All of the flavours I experienced were new and at times, I can honestly admit that it felt a bit alien to me. Taste is an interesting thing, and I found myself wanting to eat simple foods I had grown up with, a meat pie, mashed potatoes, grilled chops .... I find it amazing, looking back at myself in those days, that my palate was as limited as it was.

As time went by I found myself wandering the streets in boredom with my brother (we were both still relatively new to Singapore and didn't have cable TV or the internet at the time to keep us busy). In the days before the third rail line was constructed, getting to the non-station places was alot harder. Eventually, we stumbled upon the Little India, the famous Indian district in Singapore. There we found a whole new world of spice, flavours and textures. The simplest masalas and biriyanis were like a smack to the face. The rotis and naans became instant favourites for my brother and I found myself drinking cup after cup of chai.

Our first stop in Chennai would prove to be one of the best for us food-wise. Chennai may not be the tourist Mecca like some other places, but it is unique. For one thing, it is the centre of Tamil Nadu, the largest Tamil state in the world. This gives the food of the region a distinct flavour that you don't find elsewhere. We were lucky enough to be treated to the cooking of Manu's mother. I love homecooking and this gave us all a nice insight into what it was like to eat in a normal Tamil home.Of the food that we were given, I noticed the emphasis on rice and coconut milk. It was Indian food, but there was a very clear tinge of South-East Asia in the style. My favourite in Tamil Nadu would be the mutton biriyani. I would search it out in other places, but would never find anywhere else that could create the perfect combination of taste and tenderness.

Doesn't the biriyani look appetising? Served on a banana leaf with all the condiments (God I wish I had some right now....)

The next stop was Kerala with its famous locally grown rice and fresh fish. Again, the feeling of the tropics was there in the food. The fluffy Kerala rice was delicious. It was the perfect compliment to the curries, soaking up their sauces.

The time we spent in Goa gave us a very different style of cuisine. Here we found a clash of cultures. While the food was still very much Indian, there was a distinct Portuguese influence. One of the most famous dishes was a pork sausage of all things. It was a coming together of the Christian and Hindu cultures. Each had their own specialities that mixed to form this strange cuisine catering to all. The strangest food experiences I had in India were definitely found in Goa. Curries would be eaten with European style bread rolls, street food consisted of stuffed potato croquettes.

At one point, we were also all lucky enough to wander into a Rajistani restaurant where we tried some of the vegetarian delights of the Northern states.But of all the places I went, my favourite food was definitely the Bengali food in Calcutta.

The food there was something special. The curries were amazingly flavoured, with a strong focus again placed on seafood (this trip definitely gave me a great appreciation for Indian style seafood). Of all the dishes I had in India, it would a dish I had here that would become my favourite of the entire trip. I have no idea what the name of the dish is, but basically it is a coconut curry prawn. The way they make this dish captures all the freshest flavours of the ingredients which I love. Firstly, they take the top off a coconut. Then they pour in a relatively basic curry sauce. Next the large prawn is added. Then the cocount is resealed and cooked! The resulting dish is like nothing I've ever had. The prawn is soft and infused with the flavour of the curry (which has been enriched by the coconut milk and the flavour of the coconut flesh). The coconut is also scraped out and the flesh is served as well, but it now bears little resemblance flavour-wise to coconut, as it has soaked up all of the flavours of the prawn and the curry. It is an amazing dish and I was lucky enough to eat it more than once!
The other food I had in Calcutta was fantastic as well, and we were all able to sample a wide variety thanks to the spread they put on for us at the wedding.

Calcutta was also a good place to experience street food. The region is famous for the snack "chaat" which seems to be word that captures a wide variety of food. It ranges from what looks and tastes like salsa to yoghurty fruit salads. Everywhere we wandered in Calcutta, we would try some of what the streets had to offer us.One of the specialties of the street was called "paan". We tried this in almost every stop we made in India (this particular picture was taken in Chennai).
It's hard to describe what paan is. It's a betel leaf that wraps a range of a different spices and fillings. Manu and Sunny both assured me that paan was famous as a "digestive aid" and they both happily ate (and swallowed) their helpings. Lian commented that eating paan was akin to "eating an Indian shop" due to the intense and almost conflicting flavours. After trying paan several times, I still wasn't quite sure if I was or wasn't a fan.

Not everything was perfectly delicious though. There were several times when I thought that what I was eating was clearly made by someone with no taste buds and the desire to either confuse or hurt the person eating. The "confuse" part was definitely the case when I was eating breakfast one day in Panaji in Goa. I wandered into the old Hotel Venite searching for an "authentic Goan breakfast". What I was presented was apparently what had been eaten back in the time of the Portuguese rule of Goa. It was a strange soupy, porridgy dish called "tisan". Ground millet made into a thin gruel. It tasted of nothing. Worse than nothing, it tasted of nothing but had a bitter aftertaste. Being a good boy who always eats what is put in front of me, I silently choked down this terrible breakfast.

However, the biggest disappointment for me were the desserts. I had been assured that Indian desserts were spectacular treats to be savoured. Sadly, I found that this was not the case. What I found was that the overwhelming sweetness of the desserts was not matched by the variety of flavours that I had hoped for. Instead, almost everything tasted of cardomom flavoured, ridiculously sweet something or other. Now, I don't jump to this decision lightly and without basis either. Having spent a fair amount of time in the Middle East, I knew what it was like to eat sickly sweet desserts. But this was different. In the Middle East, the desserts have an intense sweetness, but they are balanced by delicate textures and complenting flavours such as pistacchio and custards. I didn't find this in the Indian sweets though, the dominating flavours were just too much (alot like much of India). It hit you directly and without any subtlety.

Even the stores the desserts were sold in were brightly coloured and almost garish in appearance. It was a feast for the senses, but sadly I had no stomach for it.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Meeting the Locals

When you're travelling through Europe, many people will develop the "Not another cathedral" syndrome, where the thought of seeing yet another cathedral or church is enough to drive them to drink (that being said, there are many other reasons in Europe driving you to drink).

Old Goa was a bit different though. I still had fresh memories of walking into some of the cathedrals in Vienna, glancing around, and walking straight out after soon realising they were relatively uninspiring in comparison to what I had seen earlier. I was a little bit worried that this would happen again in Old Goa due to the high concentration of old churches and cathedrals in this relatively small area. Luckily, I didn't find myself getting bored. What I was confronted with in Old Goa was a huge and varied mixture. I found everything from the massive and grand cathedrals, to the small and reserved churches. Most impressive of all was the level of detail that was placed into the paintings and the decorations inside each of the cathedrals though. It gave a sense of European grandeur that I didn't expect to find in India.

The ruins of St Augustin's were the last thing we would see on our trip to Old Goa. In a way, it was fitting thing to leave for the end. The dilapidated ruins offered such a contrast to the other things we had seen, offering just a glimpse of the incredible scale of what was once there, but showing now the true condition of area.

Walking through the old ruins, we were also confronted by some of the locals. I've heard it said many times that the best part of travelling isn't the things you see or the places you go, but it's the people you meet. I never thought much about this in the past. In fact, I was usually of the opposite opinion. After all, who cares about meeting new people when you're in a place to "see the place". If anything, meeting random locals would distract you from the primary goal!

But, as I got older, I came to understand this statement in its true meaning. While I still want to see the sites of the places I go to, the interactions with other people adds an element to travelling that is special in itself. Meeting the locals gives you a perspective on a place that cannot be found in any book or by wandering around place, and meeting other travellers is always great for a laugh or to share some experiences with.

Wandering through the ruins, we were accosted by some area's children.

With their parents hard at work, these kids were left to run around the ruins to keep themselves entertained.

Running through the ruins with these kids was hilarious. Their contant laughter and smiles lit up our moods and changed the very feel of the place.
It was also nice just to see where they were running around within the ruins. They led us to areas we probably wouldn't have seen if we had gone ourselves and just added yet another interesting event to what may have been a "not another cathedral" visit.

Monday, March 09, 2009

The Incorrupt Body of St Francis Xavier

OK, this is the most amazing thing I would see in India.

I had been shocked many times before, but this, I was now certain was by far the most amazing thing to be seen in India.

This was the Basilica of Bom Jesus.

It's another beautiful and large structure.
And initially, you would wonder why this place is so much more amazing than the others?
It's what's on the inside that makes this place so special.
Inside this basilica are the mortal remains of St Francis Xavier.
This was the famous "Incorrupt Body of St Francis Xavier". The very St Francis Xavier who travelled through Asia and became the patron Saint of the Jesuit order!
After he died, his body was brought back to Goa where it was interned in this large casket. Apparently, even years after his death, his body remained perfectly intact.
It felt strange to be standing here in this basilica in front of one of the most famous Saints in the Catholic church, all the while knowing that outside I would be confronted by the heat of India....

Sunday, March 08, 2009

The Wonders Never Cease

The Church of St Cajetan.

You'd think that after wandering around all of these churches and cathederals, we'd be bored by now.
Not really!

Every new place we walked into gave us a new insight into the wealth that Old Goa must have possessed.
This Church was particularly magnificent.
It reminded me a little of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
And yet for all of the awe that it inspired it me, even here I was shocked to see the idiocy of others.
I was a little disgusted to see a tourist marching around in a loud voice and deciding that the alter would be the best place to set up his camera equipment to take his photos.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Hot in Old Goa

My God it's hot....

Just ridiculously hot.
After walking out of the Se Cathederal we went searching for some shade and a place to sit down.
The open fields between all of the churches created an almost regal feel. As though tea time and cricket were just around the corner.
I guess both were possibilities being in India, but not in the sense I was thinking....