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.

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