By Meghann Foye
Lost Girls Deputy Editor
Trying to present a quick overview of Indian food may be like trying to catalog the world. As the center of the global spice trade for centuries, India’s cuisine has been shaped by its own Hindu and Buddhist history, longterm cultural interactions with Moghul Dynasty as well as a two-hundred-year rule under Britain. Just as there are many regional dishes in the States, such is also true of India, where clay-fired chicken from the Tandoor may tell you that you are in the North whereas spicier, soupier fish curries denote the rural South.
As much as I love Indian food, my own knowledge really only came from pre-packaged Indian packets from Trader Joe’s, chicken tikka masala takeout from Indian places in NYC and a few Indian restaurants sampled while in London. So on a recent trip to India, I was not only amazed by the variety of dishes, but the fragrant spices and fresh vegetables used in the cooking. It makes sense—much of the country is vegetarian due to Hindu beliefs and each region, city, town and even home, has its own distinctive garam masala, or blend of cooking spices.
So while in New Delhi in the North, Hyderabad, in the center of India, and Kerala on the Southern coast, I got to try many different styles of cuisine, from spicy chic pea curries to sour chutneys made with vinegar, but here were a sampling of the ones that stood out in my mind because they were very different from what I’d ever seen at home.
I’d tasted these wafer-thin filled crepes made from rice flour and lentils before—but none like I had while in India. It’s something I’ve seen a hundred times while traveling—a made-to-order pancake stuffed with meat or vegetables, but here the common street-food staple seemed elevated by the freshness of the cardamom laced through the potatoes, and the sour pickle, green chili and coconut chutney accompaniments for dipping.
2. Vegetable Curries
In New Delhi, we had many amazing meals, especially in the home of our host, Priya Paul, who owns The Park
brand of hotels, where I was a guest. Simmered in spices for hours or served with different sauces poured over them, vegetables are the star in India. Eggplant, greens, potatoes, beans, pumpkins and other gourds, peas and cauliflower were always a part of the meal, fresh and fragrant from time in the cooking pots with mild to hot blends of garlic, ginger, turmeric and cayenne pepper. After tasting them many different ways, I found myself pushing aside meat dishes in favor of more veggies.
While in Hyderabad, I was treated to my first authentic Biryani, a dish made with marinated meats like chicken, goat or lamb along with basmati rice, and cooked in a clay pot for hours. The dish was originally Persian, but many of India’s regions have almost taken it over and created their own versions, adding things like nuts, yogurt, raisins or peas. Many times, it’s a celebration dish, since the preparation can take a while and I felt special when eating it because I could feel all the time, love and care poured into making it.
4. Banana Leaf curries
This is probably not the actual name for this type of cuisine, but while in Kerala, we stopped at a Khanavalli, or a small family-run homestyle place, typical of Southern coastal India, and this is what they looked like to me. There, you can order based on the number and kinds of curries you want to try and it’s mainly vegetarian due to the high number of veg people in the area. A banana leaf is placed in front of you and men carrying tiffins with three types of curries come by, dropping heapfuls of rice, lentil, vegetable, and watery coconut milk fish curries, along with rotis, or thin wheat bread for dipping. It’s totally normal to eat with your right hand, dipping and smushing the bread around your plate, with one satisfying swoosh up into your mouth.
5. Irani Chai
Okay, although not technically a meal, this deliciously thick and sweet tea represents a huge part of the Hyderabad Kaayf, or cafe culture, and deserves a mention, because I thankfully had many while I was there. Brought over with Irani traders, this special tea is made from brewed tea leaves, boiled milk and sweetened condensed milk, and served in little translucent glasses, better than any blended coffee drink from Starbucks. In Hyderabad, we saw many Irani Cafes serving the popular drink around the old-town area near Charminar. These Kaayfs were filled with men, relaxing and talking, which I was told, like a typical Parisian cafe, represents much of what life is about in this city—the mix of ideas, considered slowly and carefully implemented over time.