Gratuitous Food Entry!

Trip Start Aug 22, 2005
Trip End Feb 06, 2006

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Flag of India  ,
Wednesday, September 7, 2005

I have realised that I have more or less missed out mentioning one of the best things about India; the food! I might update this again as there is so much to say...

I've been through many places now and experienced a range of 'Thalis'. Most Indians will eat a thali as a complete meal for breakfast, lunch or dinner. They typically serve the meal on metal trays with numerous sized dents in them, someone with then come along with various pails and put different food in all the dents. In the middle is a 'well' for rice and maybe a chapatti. In the South they tend to use banana leaves as plates instead! Food should be eaten with the right hand (the left is for washing and therefore considered impure). I have been eating with my hand on occasion since I was little and I leap at every chance to because the food just seems to taste so much better; your hands really are the best tools, they provide a whole other sense.

Each region has different flavours and dishes but two dents are normally used for different types of vegetable curry, one for dhal (mashed up lentils), one for yoghurt (the cooling factor) and two specialties to the region. In one Punjabi thali we ate, they broke up this wheat ball with spices and sprinkled sugar over it for us to dip into the dhal. I am not a fussy eater (as many would testify!) but it was absolutely vile!! Marcus loved it. But then he would eat spam so no distinguished opinion there! ;)

Sweet and savoury mix = not my bag, it just tasted too cloying. The Rajasthan thalis were taste intense but v v rich; all the curries were so full on, probably akin to what you find in British curry houses. That kind of food is typically 'special occasion' food rather than everyday meals. The food in the North is pretty much based on the recipes the Mughal invaders brought over from Central Asia during the 16th - 18th centuries; lots of dried fruits and nuts, cream and marinated meat in a tandoor oven.

My favourite without a doubt are the South Indian thalis. They're much lighter and fresher flavours, very little cream/fat used and I can taste more herbs (mainly coriander). There are more vegetables used too, aubergines, cauliflower, beans, carrots courgettes etc. Rusam is a special type of watery sauce made from tomatoes, chillies, coriander and tamarind that taste brilliant over rice. The best bit (if you're lucky) would be an idli, masala dosa or piece of vadai to go with the curries. Idli is a fermented spongy rice cake, a unique flavour but everyone loves them. Indians eat them for breakfast with savoury sambar/dhal sauce. Vadai are little balls of a particular type of lentil mixed with chillies and spices and fried lightly in a pan. These are usually served with coconut chutney (grated coconut sauce with red/green chillies).
The Masala Dosai is technically a whole other dish and I would eat them all day every day if I could! It is a lentil pancake with spicy potato filling, served with sambar and veg curry and eaten for breakfast or as a snack during the day.

I think the meat here is untrustworthy! I have been trying to avoid it and I didn't touch seafood ether until I got to Mumbai. The fish curries were not usually that good as they give you a whole little fish in some sauce instead f filleting it, which is a bit tricky. I expect if we had visited the places mentioned in the guidebook it may not have been that way, but I find that they tend to hike the prices up and add more westernised food once they're mentioned in the 'Lonely Planet' or whatever. I must admit it has been difficult at times in canteens to order what I've wanted, the menu being in Hindi or no menu at all, but we've been able to eat very cheaply (about 60p each for four dishes!) and as such, any mistakes made we can just reorder! Although to be fair nothing has come out tasting really bad and even so I'd probably eat it all just so I don't waste food...

In Mumbai we stopped to look at some grass (as you do, it was vibrant green) and an old man started chatting away to us (as Indians tend to do) and he suggested a place he normally goes to for dinner. We ordered prawn masala, a yellow pomfret (west coast speciality), a fish steak and a veg biriyani. This came with as much Paratha as we liked (layered, flaky pancake type bread, not too heavy so perfect for mopping).

On another note, we have 'cheated' a few times, going for Chinese, Israeli or western style food. The Chinese is always quite good, the western terrible and the Israeli usually brilliant. I guess it's because I have an expectation of how a dish tastes based on European ingredients and the dish does not taste good with their substitutions!!

European ingredients were common in Goa and we were also shocked to see the prices quadruple (bloody tourists eh?!). We treated ourselves on the first night in Palolem after seeing about 40 villagers pull in a massive net from the shore. They brought it in amidst yelling, crows swooping in, dogs trying to get tidbits, children running around with baskets etc. and folded the 3x3m net over the catch leaving most of the fish within to fight a losing battle for their lives. When they unfolded the net, I was shocked to see the amount of extremely small fish. I couldn't help but think that people may suffer trying to catch bigger fish in the future if they don't allow them to grow. However, I only know about the general concept of fish stocks (ringing bells anthropologists?!) and not the exact circumstances of Goa and it's fishermen.

I expected some of the catch to be wasted but most of it was scooped up by the villagers after the fishermen had taken their lot to sell to the restaurants.They filled up baskets of squid and pomfret, a few prawns and other fsh. The useless fish were left; barracuda (nasty predatory fish with too many bones), jellyfish, tiny crabs and even a small pufferfish. I watched a puppy come over and manage to paw apart a bit of net to get to a still-flapping fish. He didn't seem to know what to do with it! He kept picking it up and being startled by it's movement, until he finally succeeded in decapititating it.

After seeing the fish dying I didn't much fancy fish for dinner so I ordered a calamari and prawn thai green curry... I really am a hypocrite but the fish flapping about was quite distressing. However, it was one of the best things I've ever tasted! I have never eaten food so fresh, even the coconut milk was freshly harvested. I may well have become a bit of a snob when it comes to fresh squid! This experience has totally changed my perception on how it should taste, there is no way any restaurant could replicate it unless they were on the seaside.
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