July 13, 2017
SLOW FOOD INDIA
When you think about India’s vast land area and its huge population, you want to stop and think about how it can feed its billions of people. And she does feed her people well. Slow Food is definitely practiced in India even if they don’t preach it.
If my short stay in New Delhi can be a gauge of how India eats, I am amazed at the richness and diversity of its culture. Everyone I talk to speaks about India’s complex and interesting language and cuisine.
For my daily breakfast I went on a culinary adventure and avoided everything Western, just for a few days. I was happy to be coached by no less than the Sous Chef of Taj Palace hotel. Chef Oberoi went out of his way to guide me through the different breads, chutneys, and sauces. One will be amazed at the different ways Indians have cooked or baked or fried bread from flour like rice wheat and chickpea. Name it and they’ve probably already thought about it.
The sauces are amazing. I tried Sambhar which is like an all around soupy dipping sauce for Dosa, Idli, and Puri breads.
I had street food in the comforts of the five star Taj: samosa and a fried chickpea, like a falafel drizzled with tamarind sauce and coriander sauce.
I tried Poha, a flattened rice grain dish, a vermicelli noodle called Semiya Upma, and even their famous Hakka egg noodles which is also figured in in our buffet lunches (usually the vegetarian choice).
The pratha, roti, and dosa station could make breads and pancakes from different persuasions. Some are from Northern states and some from the south.
My only break from the savory Indian spread was having familiar fresh fruits of “Indian” mango, papaya, and pineapple. They have a sweet lime they call Mosambi which tastes like our dalandan.
At the special dinner hosted by the officials we had a copper plate filled with little bowls of okra, vegetables, potatoes, Dahl makhani (lentils cooked in lovely savory ghee), yogurt, and a center bowl with vegetable biryani. There was a rogan josh lamb dish which I skipped as I chose the vegetarian plate instead.
The dessert was interesting. It includes cheese and reduced milk dessert that tastes like pastillas de leche, a sinful indulgent fried dough dipped in syrup, and also Gulab jamun (our favorite syrupy sweet balls).
Even as the setting is a bit formal, we were also offered breads baked in a tandoori oven, hot and crisp (which is eaten with the hands and is still the proper way even in more formal dinners). The idea is to break some bread and pick up some savory dish with it then allow the flavors to explode in your mouth. No other sauce is needed as each dish is expertly spiced to complement the neutral taste of the breads or long grain Basmati rice. The chutneys serve to complement each dish.
This must be Slow Food Indian style. Each dish is made with a lot of effort as the spices have to be balanced and not too overpowering. I admit it is an acquired taste. But I am loving it. I admire each speck of grain or pellet of spice that I find in the chutneys and the dishes.
It is a diverse culture. Nonetheless, each Indian I spoke with is proud of his or her heritage. Though they can easily tell which comes from the North and which is Southern, West, or Northeastern, they have the same pride in introducing each dish no matter their own provenance.
“There is nothing mothers and fathers can do which oil can,”, says a famous Indian blurb according to Mr. Sulik, as we watch the chef put a fresh piece of dough into the hot oil from which will come a perfectly poofed Puri. Like magic, it balloons and stays poofed until you eat it. “It’s wonderful isn’t it?”, he asks me. I nod in agreement as I take yet another piece of bread onto my plate.
And to top my visit, the Chef and His manager gifted me with a Vegetarian cookbook from the Taj, a souvenir of my culinary journey to the land of Incredible India.
Elsewhere in the city, our friends brought us to an organic café called Altitude. We meet the owner, Dharamendra Chhabra, an amiable man who left his hotel job to open this new place. He has an organic farm and an organic market/grocery.
Just last year, he started the café. Why Altitude? “Everything good is grown at a certain altitude,” he tells me. He personally goes around and takes the orders of the mixed nationalities—expats, locals, and tourists like us. The meals we chose are all-organically-grown and I had a wondeful Millet (same used for our Budbud kabog) noodles with brocolli florets, mushroom, cherry tomatoes, and fresh peanuts. Millet is a grain not often used in making pasta and it is gluten-free soba-like noodles.
Beside or two doors away from the café is the Altitude Organic Market, a compact two-storey storefront. I saw fresh almonds (the fruit before you see the familiar nut), the cherry tomatoes (which I found in my pasta) and many fruits like pomegranate, Mosambi (sweet lime), all coming from organic farms knows to Chaddra.
And in another famous store downtown called KHADI, opened in 1915 by no less than Mahatma Gandhi, we spot natural food ingredients like ginger, curcumin, and many different ayurvedic and homeopathy products. I got myself a detox powder recommended by a seatmate at dinner. It’s all natural and just mixed professionally by India’s naturalist practitioners.
I was amazed at how everything in India is done in tune with the seasons and everything is cooked or eaten to either cool or warm the body, naturally. Not everything is a hot spice. There are variations of mixes and the combination of nature’s gifts all contribute to India’s rich culinary heritage.
That’s India’s slow food way and they may say, the Indian way. It’s all good and takes into account the biodiversity as chefs and cooks respect the seasonality of ingredients while serving their famous curries and biryanis.
Another samosa, anyone?
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