new Things I Ate in Cambodia: INDIAN FOOD INTRO-DUCTION

Wednesday, June 25, 2008


Food in India is Not What You Expected. It is miles away from the greasy Indian discount buffet you may be familiar with. It has very little to do with the boil-in-a-bag curries you may encounter at the supermarket, and definitely has very little to do with Insta-Curry powder casseroles that sometimes emerge from the wildernesses of the midwest. It is far, far, better then that. It is a delightfully varied and riotusly flavorful cuisine that one could happily spend an entire lifetime wandering through in a state of profound epicurean bliss. (Also it tastes good. Really good.)


Doing an adequate survey of Indian cuisine is sort of an issue for the casual tourist because real down n' dirty Indian cooking takes place almost exclusively in the home. India is not a truly restaurant-centric country and real food and eating comes from the home, comes from mom or auntie or the kitchen staff or whatever working their little fingers to the bone to produce the delicious, delicious food the family sits down to when the evening rolls around. I was lucky enough to eat some home-cooked Indian food - I wouldn't say it is unilaterally BETTER then restaurant food but it is definitely closer to the sort of thing you could eat every day without developing a terrible case of sugar diabetes. Home cooking is lighter, simpler, and a lot easier to eat on a regular basis then the rich fare most restaurants serve up - dining out is still more of a Special Occasion then a standby for your average Indian family. So there's your paradigm.

India is developing fast and will doubtless find itself with more and more supermarkets and organic grocery stores and mini-markets in the near future, but as it stands, most housewives still do their shopping at local markets near their home, bartering over fruits and vegetables with the sari-clad woman pushing the cart. Produce is not as big and shiny and epic as it is in your more developed countries but it certainly does taste better: those tiny little strawberries I bought in India went bad fast but they also tasted sublime, unlike the hormonal mutants I find myself consuming ruefully upon my arrival back home.

You are likely to see in an Indian market:

- lady finger/okra/bhindi sold in big bunches
-drumsticks which I am still unable to quite grasp the appeal of
- excitingly colored eggplants
- tiny but flavorful little tomatoes
- intriguing yellow and purple figs
- lots and lots of small potatoes
- cauliflower or gobi, usually sold with lots and lots of dirt on it which you should stop worrying about now because otherwise you will go completely insane
- lots and lots of fresh green herbs, which almost knock you back with coriander insistence when you walk by the stall
- tiny and sour little grapes or GIANT TERRIFYING globe grapes with big old seeds
- lovely little blush peaches
- spices and pulses and lentils and god knows what else stacked up in bins
- about twenty million different varieties of mango, which everyone but you will be able to comment upon with depth and passion
- apples wrapped in plastic because, seriously, they ship those suckers all the way from seattle SEATTLE for christ's sake
- tasty asian pears
- guavas, which are scrumptious when sliced open on a really miserable hot day
- big old pineapples, which are sold for basically nothing
- pomegranates all the time, in the tiny and flavorful version and the big honking but kind of flavorless version
- lots and lots and lots of other stuff

For the homemaker who is too lazy to head down to the grocery, produce sellers have a lovely habit of taking their carts up and down residential neighborhoods to shill their wares. This sounds charming until you discover that the produce sellers like to yell the name of whatever they are pushing at ear-splitting decibels really early in the morning.

Then you will hate them.

Downside: Indian cooks definitely do not have access to the dizzying array of ingredients that we in the Western world (especially in diverse places like California) do. This can get boring after a bit. I found myself having slightly erotic dreams about avocados and broccoli by the end of my stay, two species that are kinda hard to find.

Buying meat is done in a slightly convoluted way: India is a country that is just plain hopping with various dietary restrictions, meaning that shops for chicken, pork, and mutton are clearly delineated. The chicken stores (Real Good Chicken!) are very common and can produce carnivore guilt as sad looking chickens huddle in cages awaiting the inevitable end. My friend once saw a chicken store owner chasing a hapless bird down the street with a cleaver. Plus side: you KNOW you're getting fresh meat!

Mutton stores are very common and usually feature giant, bloody sheep and goat corpses hanging in the window. This kind of thing would produce scarring for life and therapy sessions in wussy American children but passes without comment in India. Pork stores are less gory and also sell things like sausage and bacon, which are not all that easy to come by.

Fish is, curiously enough, commonly sold door to door, where the smiling fish monger will whack the sucker in half for you upon purchase. There are also quite a few clean and rather impressive seafood stores about where you can purchase crab and squid and whatever suits your fancy, at least in Southern India.

Beef can be obtained and there are quite a few steakhouses afoot, but you definitely have to go looking, and butchers occasionally get whacked for slaughtering cows so one has to be subtle.

Indian women DO tend to use the grocery store for things like Coca-Cola (they love it), ketchup (REALLY love it, especially on pizza), pulses and lentils, and for big and slightly un-nerving plastic bags of ghee. I always wondered what happens when those puppies explode. There are about a million different flavors of Lays potato chips (Magic Masala!) and digestive biscuits (Mango Creme Madness!) - Indians really really like both of these delicious unhealthy carbohydrate sources. There's an interesting aisle of ready to fry papadums and snackies in a variety of flavors for those on board with the whole Sandra Lee semi-homemade thing. Groceries also stock a bewildering, awe inspiring variety of pickles which really must be seen to be believed. Grocery stores (like Fabmall, Spencers, and the like) are quite sophisticated and stock most of the things us Westerners might expect, down to sugary cereals and hair removal creams. Indians also are on board with ready-to-eat shelf stable curries in various flavors and varieties. I know some single guys who shall go nameless who seem to live on those, Pizza Hut, and Cadbury's chocolate bars. Truly incompetence is universal.

Bakeries are extremely common and smell very nice, usually attracting a crowd of people after work or school gets out to wolf down cakes and shoot the breeze. Housewives also tend to pick up pav (very very sweet sort of buns) for pav bhaji, a popular Mumbai street food comprised of vegetable curry with a bread side. Cakes are usually tooth-achingly sweet and luridly colored affairs, although high end bakeries and chocolate shops are beginning to take off big time in the financial centers of Bangalore, Mumbai, and Delhi. Gelato is also inexplicably incredibly popular and (even more surprising) very delicious.

When Indian women cook, the affair always seems to begin with a trip to the spice grinder, a tool seen rarely in American kitchens and considered totally and utterly essential to the Indian home-maker. Curries tend to start with a mixture of fresh, fresh spices and woe betide the chef who messes that bit up. I am buying one as soon as possible. Pure ghee composed from dairy is of course the REAL way to cook, but many restaurants and home cooks use other oils to either cut costs or calories. Mustard oil appears on a regular basis and adds an interesting dimension to many curries.

So: that's the homey nitty-gritty of Indian food. Or at least the very basics. Next we'll talk about street food, which is of course a whole nother' realm of awesome.

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