Postcards From: A writer's journal and photographer's blog of just about anything that interests us.
Saturday December 10 2011
Nothing characterizes India better than it’s food. Indian food IS India. If you think that’s a stretch, click over to Incredible!India or The Lonely Planet Travel and Information Guide to India and try this little exercise: replace every reference to India (or it’s people) with “Indian cuisine”, and replace every touristic site (or characteristic) they mention with the name of an Indian dish. If you don’t know any, just try these — chicken tandoori, daal, salan, veg handi, basmati, paratha, dosa, naan– and you’ll get what I mean.
Indian cuisine is a metaphor for India itself. Indian food shouts at your senses for attention, but its ingredients do not compete with each other, they live side-by-side, blended together in a rich multiplicity of flavour and aroma. Just like the country itself, Indian dishes are bewilderingly diverse, their spices and flavours outrageously sensual, their colours chaotically vivid, and their concentration in the bellies of the privileged undeniably controversial.
My colleagues took me down to the cafeteria before our quarterly department meeting last week and introduced me to chaat – India’s version of fast food. In Hyderabad bazaars, office canteens, and on neighbourhood street corners all over the city, Hyderabadis indulge their craving for snacks in a way that puts the hot dog to shame.
Harish showed me how to crumble up a samosa in the bottom of the plate, then smother it with a fragrant and mildly spicy yellow pea curry called ‘ragada’. On top of this he piled thinly sliced sweet red onion, matchstick carrots, fresh yoghurt and mint sauce, and tangy sweet tamarind sauce. An exotic blend of powdered spices called Garam Masala, salt, cayenne, and a crunchy graham flour vermicelli called sev are sprinkled on top to finish it off. It was the best afternoon snack I’ve ever had. It will make settling for French fries again seem like, well … ‘settling’.
I know there are regions of southern India where the curried dishes are so full of heat I couldn’t possibly eat them comfortably. Indian food has a reputation among foreigners of being too hot and spicy. However the chili pepper is a relative newcomer to Indian cuisine. It is native to South America, and was only introduced to South Asia in the 16th century by Portuguese and Spanish explorers. Indians adopted it all over the country to varying degrees, probably for its antiseptic properties and effect on the circulatory system. But the cuisine I experienced in Hyderabad was delightfully flavoured and just spicy enough to be exciting.
Spices add colour and flavour to Indian food but they are also part of an ancient medicinal tradition in India called Ayurveda. Many of the spices in Indian cuisine were chosen hundreds of years ago for their effect on the body, in particular the digestive and circulatory systems. Spices such as cardamom and cloves are used for their antiseptic qualities, fennel, cumin, and coriander for their digestive and anti-inflammatory properties. Every spice has its purpose, and flavours and seasonings are chosen to complement them to produce a richly exotic and balanced dish. Chutneys, yoghurt, nuts, fruit, and a large variety of marinated pickle are served as condiments to provide a complete meal.
My first taste experience in Hyderabad necessarily demanded a local dish. Hyderabad is famous for its Biryani, a basmati rice dish cooked with either meats or vegetables, and infused with a mouthwatering combination of yoghurt, onions, ginger, garlic, spices, lemon, saffron, and fresh coriander. We indulged in chicken biryani and veg biryani — served with a delicious Mirchi ka Saalan (green chili in brown gravy) — a few times on this trip, but unfortunately never made it to the mecca for Hyderabadi biryani enthusiasts, the Paradise. We’ll have to save that for the next time.
How do they do that?
The base ingredient of many Indian curries is the masala, a stir-fried blend of four key ingredients: onions, garlic, ginger, and tomatoes. Depending on the region or dish, a different combination of spices and seasonings is added to flavour the various meats, fish or seafood, lentils, cheese curd, or vegetables that are added and gently simmered until a rich sensual gravy results. Other dishes are “dry” preparations, where a blend of yoghurt, garlic, ginger, salt, cumin, turmeric, chillies and coriander are applied as a thick marinade before cooking, kebab-style, in a clay oven called a tandoori. Main dishes are served with rice preparations and flatbreads such as naan and roti for dipping or scooping by hand.
The best meal — by far — that we had here in Hyderabad was taken at Kebabs & Kurries restaurant at the Kakatiya Sheraton. In fact, it made such an impression I had to go back there again last night … for research purposes, of course. Kebabs & Kurries seduces your senses. Lori Anne did not put up much resistance.
“The prawns, Louise! You have to try the prawns!”
Tandoori jhinga are succulent jumbo prawns as big as your palm, butterflied and marinated in ajwaim seeds, yoghurt, turmeric, garam masala and chillies and then grilled over smoking hot charcoal. The buttered naan was chewy and flaky, and perfect for scooping up the house daal, a makhani-style version of black lentils, tomatoes, ginger, garlic, cream and spices simmered slowly for 10 hours over charcoal and liberally laced with butter. It’s so good they brand it a “Bukhara” – a house specialty. Every mouthful makes you roll your eyes back in your head, sigh with pleasure, and blissfully ignore the fact that you’re going to see it all on your hips the next day.
K & K’s vegetarian menu is no less impressive. We rounded out our meal with a riotous, colourful dish called Kekashan. A healthful mix of green peppers, cauliflower, potato, carrots, peas, corn nibblets and stewed to perfection in a pomegranate seed gravy laced with cumin, whole red chili, and topped with toasted almonds. I didn’t just want to eat it. I wanted to move in and marry the chef.
I can’t wait until the return trip in February … I think more research is absolutely necessary.