Photos and Story by Jennifer Rock
India is the land of spirituality and spices. Each region has its own uniquely distinct flavors, but all built upon staple ingredients of vegetables, legumes, and grains. Much of the food found in India is vegetarian, for the dominant religion, Hinduism, regards animals as sacred, with the cow, the most sacred of animals, providing every-thing from cheese and butter to cooking fuel. The minority Muslim population provides much of the meat (beef and chicken), but the majority of meals consist of a comforting mélange of slow-cooked vegetables in thick gravy, accompanied by cardamom-spiced rice and a hunk of naan or roti, Indian flat breads used to soak up the sauce excess.
While touring around India this past winter, I was only able to experience the North-ern cuisines, but it was a trip through regional and cultural specialties I won’t soon forget.
Breakfast, a cuisine unique from lunch and dinner as we Westerners have come to know it, is a luxury many Indians do not indulge. Often, breakfasts consist of much of the same foods consu-med at other meals. Stuffed paratha, a butter-laden flat bread with minced, spiced potatoes and chilies, is a main staple. Another common breakfast item (and my absolute favorite Indian food) is the masala dosa, a paper-thin crepe nearly a foot long, wrapped around spiced potatoes and served with coconut chutney and daal, a spiced lentil stew. To cater to Westerners, you’ll often find weak attempts at dry toast with overly sweet red jam and soggy scrambled eggs; I highly recommend going with the tradi-tional foods. To finish the meal, help yourself to a cup of masala chai, tea made with ginger, cardamom, cloves, sugar, and boiled milk. You can order masala chai in just about any restaurant; tea is very popular in India and even strangers will offer you a cup if you grace their home. Just be wary of the source of your masala chai: often, to cut corners, restau-rants will add masala powder, a boxed variety usually used in curry; in tea, it can be rough on the stomach.
The water of India, along with the growing and shipping conditions for much of the produce, is often rife with pollu-tion. Vegetables are washed in iodine before being rinsed in filtered water to make sure they’re clean for consumption. I wonder-ed if that was the reason behind so much of the slow cooking found in Indian cuisine. However, the few vegetables I was able to sample raw were amazing. I found purple carrots as sweet as fruit, and red onions so mild you could peel them and snack.
I was most excited to try one of my favorite dishes in the land of its creation. Chole batura is a Northern Indian dish in three parts. You receive two giant puff-ed pieces of bread (batura) that deflate when you pierce them, spiced chickpeas (chole) in a savory sauce of tomato and red onion, and a side of raita, yogurt with cucum-ber or fruit, to cool the spices. I like to tear pieces of the batura and pile on chickpeas with a dollop of raita. The combination is messy and divine.
In Dharamsala, I was able to sample Tibetan cuisine, courtesy of the refugees who have settled in this town nestled in the Himalayas. On a particularly cold and rainy afternoon, I was revived by a bowl of Thanthuk, a vegetable soup with homemade noodles and crunchy greens. A dollop of chili paste warmed me to my toes. Accompanying the Thanthuk, a dish of Tibetan dumplings known as momos completed a hearty meal that seems essential to any person dwelling in the mountains.
For dessert, India has a wide variety of sweets you may never see in the States. Much of their pastries take advantage of the spongy prop-erties of milk powder, with lovely results. Help yourself to gulab jamun, a golden deep-fried pastry with pistachios in the center, nestled in a sea of honey. They’re best when fresh out of the fryer, served warm. Wash it all down with a silky lassi, commonly found in mango and banana flavors, but I highly recommend you seek out kessar pista, which translates to saffron pistachio.
India is an amazingly unique country, and its food is a reflection of its culture and heritage. Should you have the chance to make the 14 hour trip around the world, you’re in for an unforgettable experience, both culinary and existential.