Food for thought (part two) – India


Being a huge fan of Indian food back home I was slightly afraid that the real thing may not live up to expectations…Needless to say my fears were totally unfounded!

Our sortie into the highly spiced world of Indian cooking may have had a shaky start as we waited for our stomachs to settle after the inevitable bout of “Delhi belly”. However, once recovered, we delightedly delved in!

Indian food varies from region to region but has proved to be tasty in almost every form. Generally breads (such as naans, parathas and chappattis) are more a phenomenon of the North, as are tandoori (clay oven cooked) and meat dishes. This is not to say that meat and bread do not appear in the South, just that you are more likely to find vegetable and seafood dishes.

With that in mind here are some of the foodstuffs that we have encountered:

During our Indian cookery class in Udaipur we learnt how to make pretty much any kind of flat bread that you could ever desire. The basic ingredients for any Indian bread are flour, water and a pinch of salt; mix, knead, roll out and cook dry on a heavy iron plate and you have a chapatti. Parathas are essentially the same with a little oil folded in and used to coat the bread whilst cooking. Naans are slightly more complex with curd (natural yoghurt), baking soda and sugar added to the flour, and rested for 30 minutes before cooking (traditionally cooked in the tandoor, although a hot iron pan will suffice). Parathas and naans can also be stuffed with any filling of your choice, be it fruit, vegetable or meat to provide an endless variety of breads. And the difference between all of these?Chapattis are your common everyday accompaniment to a meal whereas naans are usually reserved for special occasions (well going out for an Indian in England is always a special occasion right?), whilst parathas are normally served at breakfast with chai.

I won’t say much about rice as it’s a grain I’m sure you’re all familiar with. However, I’ll introduce a small fact that surprised us: apparently a vegetable pilau should contain more veg than rice, whereas a vegetable biryani should contain more rice than veg (according to our teacher Sashi anyway). We both believed it to be the other way around! We’ve also discovered Kashmiri rice; rice cooked with various fruits and vegetables, usually including pineapple – a favourite of mine.

Pakoras, koftas and cutlets
It took us a while to ascertain the difference between these tasty little deep fried treats but I think we’ve finally cracked it. Pakoras are vegetables fried in a spicy chickpea (gram) flour batter, whereas koftas consist of vegetables that have been mashed together and moulded into a ball before frying, whilst cutlets are essentially flattened koftas. The nice thing about our experience with these finger foods is that they are much more flavoursome than their British counterparts.

Sadly samosas were not covered in our cooking class but we discovered some of the best samosas I’ve ever eaten in a great little eatery in Jaipur named LMB. Samosas in India are much larger than those tiny little things we get in the UK, they’re also far more sumptuous. These fist-sized triangular parcels, packed full of vegetables and spices deliver a good kick with every bite. Our favourite samosa outlet serves them up with generous helpings of mango and coriander chutneys, the sweetness of which provide a good counterbalance to the spices inside. This is definitely a lunchtime favourite that will be sadly missed.

Aside from their pairing with samosas, chutneys are something that we’ve found surprisingly elusive. They are however deceptively easy to make, mango chutney can be made by blending together fresh mangoes, sugar, salt, chilli powder and a little water. When mangoes are not in season fear not! Simply substitute the fresh mangoes with mango powder (a very intense and sour powder made from dried mangoes), add some extra sugar and water and simmer until reduced to the desired consistency. Coriander or mint chutneys are made by blending the fresh herb with garlic, chilli, salt, a little water and some lemon juice, simple and delicious (maybe omit the garlic if you’re like me).

Dosas are a distinctly Southern speciality; crispy rice pancakes that resemble giant brandy snaps in appearance but taste more like cheese on toast. A masala dosa is curled around a generous dollop of spicy potato curry and served with sambar (a spicy lentil and vegetable curry soup) and a couple of other unidentified but flavoursome accompaniments that come with free refills. Very nice for breakfast, lunch or dinner – or all three!

What to say? Curries come in an endless variety, so much so that I won’t even attempt to describe them. On most menus in India you’ll find a selection of veg and non-veg dishes. With a large portion of the population being vegetarian, vegetable curries are not just relegated to the lowly side dish as they are in the UK. We’ve had some very nice veg dishes including stuffed potatoes (a skinless baked or boiled potato stuffed with paneer and served in a creamy sauce), pumpkin curry, and okra cooked in dry spices (a favourite of Simon’s). In the south we’ve had some delightful seafood dishes including prawn masala, meen papas (a creamy fish fillet curry) and grilled tiger prawns in a tongue tingling spicy sauce. Curries in the south of India (or perhaps I should say Kerala since that is the only part of the south we’ve had time to explore) frequently have a coconut sauce giving them a flavour reminiscent of a Thai curry, although without the fish sauce.

Meat can be a little hit and miss in India. For the most part beef is off the menu due to the Hindu sanctity of the cow. Pork is similarly omitted, presumably out of respect for the Muslim population, although this is just conjecture on my part. Mutton and chicken however can be found on most non-veg menus. Tandoori meats, either in the form of meat on the bone (e.g. Tandoori chicken), skewered boneless chunks (such as chicken tikka) or even minced and shaped into kebabs (common with mutton) are marinated in yoghurt and spices before cooking in the tandoor (clay oven) – delicious! When eating a meat curry in India you may prefer to choose a dish that is specified on the menu as boneless, otherwise you may spend your time picking what little meat there is off the bone. That said, most of meat curries we’ve had have been very tasty.

Mystery veg
In the streets of almost every city we have come across vendors pushing carts stacked high with this miscellaneous green and purple vegetable that looks something like a cross between a mini bell pepper and a brussel sprout. What this vegetable is, or how it is supposed to be consumed we have no idea, the only thing of note is that the sellers periodically pour water over them. If anyone is able to identify this vegetable for us it would be most appreciated!

Lassis are yoghurty drinks, which can be plain, sweet or salty, fruit flavoured, chocolate flavoured or in the case of the Rajasthani specialty ‘Makhani lassi’ saffron and sultana flavoured. Lassis (or at least the sweet type, I cannot account for the salty variety) are very refreshing, providing a cooling antidote to both the hot climate and spicy food.

Not being a tea drinker I don’t believe any description I give will do justice to chai, therefore I leave this to Simon…
“A rich milky blend of tea leaves, sugar and spices, it’s nothing like the watery brown cuppa back home – although a bit of a shock when you see quite how many tablespoons of sugar they’re heaping in!”

You’ll find Indian sweets glinting temptingly at you like little sugary gems behind many a glass counter. We saved this treat for Diwali when sweet shops suddenly pop up from nowhere, bursting at the seams and spilling out onto the pavements, selling large boxes of assorted delights to share with friends and family. We stood in front of a counter and tentatively picked out a small selection to fill our tiny box. Of the sweets we sampled (and you’ll have to forgive me, I don’t know their names) were a round white coconutty one (a bit like coconut ice), a thick treacly cube in a paper case (similar to the topping of a treacle tart), an almond diamond topped with shiny silver leaf (essentially pretty marzipan) and a number of fudge-like sweets (including one chocolatey affair). We enjoyed these little bursts of sugar amidst the Diwali fireworks from our rooftop, a spectacular way to sample India’s sweet offerings.


Food for thought

It has occurred to us that perhaps one very important aspect has been lacking from the tales of our trip so far… The culinary delights that have been on offer!

Peking duck (Beijing)
We started our very first night in Beijing with the classic amber-glazed Peking duck, a tasty treat already familiar to most westerners. The main difference between the Peking duck we experienced and that on offer in most Chinese restaurants at home was more in the presentation than flavour, with strips of the deftly carved duck beautifully aligned on separate plates so you could choose from crispy skin, succulent breast or the less tempting (to us anyway) fatty pieces. All to be savoured in pancakes with plum sauce, thinly sliced spring onions, cucumber and some purple vegetable with a radish flavour.

Fish and fat (Beijing)
One night we walked into a Beijing restaurant, threw caution to the wind and selected a range of dishes from the picture menu. The pak choi was a successful choice providing us with the desired steamed greens in soy sauce, the fish was fantastic: cooked whole in a delicious slightly spicy, tangy sauce, fantastic as long as the miscellaneous lumps if fat (not potato as first thought) were avoided. Unfortunately the third dish was less than successful, what had looked like tasty Chinese style ribs on the menu turned out to be inedible strips of fatty meat (believed to be duck). Nevermind – a success rate of two out of three is still a win!

Street snacks on-a-stick (Beijing)
I realise this has already been covered in an earlier post so I’ll just briefly touch on the offerings of Beijing’s street markets. Among the usual suspects were various varieties of marinated meat-on-a-stick, tofu-on-a-stick and glazed fruits-on-a-stick. Then you come across the increasing bizarre and less appealing options of small (shark-like) fish-on-a-stick, scorpions and crickets-on-a-stick (sometimes still wriggling), silk worm puppae-on-a-stick, snake-on-a-stick and yes even sheep penis-on-a-stick. Needless to say we did not sample all of these delights – we had to save something for our next visit to China, of course!

Momos (Tibet and Nepal)
Momos are fantastic as a snack, starter, main course or even a desert. Savoury momos are little parcels of seasoned meat (usually Yak) or vegetables wrapped in a thin pastry and either steamed or fried. We first encountered these little treats in Tibet, where the momos are smaller (one or two bites) with a thinner pastry/dough/batter (not sure what the correct term is) and supplied with soy and chilli dipping sauces. In Nepal momos tend to be larger, with a thicker casing and are most commonly fried. Up in the mountains Nepal also offers the sumptuous apple momo. Apple momos are perfect after a hard day’s trekking and are essentially a deep fried apple pie: nice, warming, hearty food. And for those with a taste for the sickly sweet may I present the snickers momo, Nepal’s answer to the deep-fried mars bar.

Bobbi/Bobby (Tibet)
Bobbis are essentially like fajitas: mixed vegetables, with or without yak meat, supplied with soured cream cheese to be wrapped in thin pancakes or chapati-like bread. Delicious!

Dal bhat (Nepal)
Whilst I was not a big fan of this dish I think that Simon was enamoured by the fact it came with free refills of each component. Dal bhat is a fairly simple dish consisting of mountains of rice accompanied by some vegetable curry, a bowl of (usually quite watery) dal (a slightly spicy lentil soup) and often a small amount of pickle.

Lemon/lime soda (Nepal and India)
I first encountered this drink a few years ago in Sri Lanka and was ecstatic to rediscover it in Nepal. Lime soda (sometimes called lemon soda despite the fact that it seems to in fact be made with lime) is a simple but incredibly refreshing drink consisting of the juice of one or two limes topped up with soda. Seriously, if you haven’t tried it buy yourself some limes and make it now!


Mountain moments

There are just a few little things I’d like to share that aren’t really sufficient for individual posts but also don’t flow as a single concept, so I’ve grouped them together here:

Tibetan toilets
I’m sure most of you are familiar with the concept of the squat toilet, however I doubt many of you have experienced the group bonding variety that appears the higher (and thus more remote) you get in Tibet. I’ll just make it clear at the outset that these toilets were at least thankfully single-sex. At first the toilets lost their ceramic surrounding and became the literal ‘hole in the floor’ – fine, it makes little difference. They then become holes in the floor separated by low partitions with no door – oh well, since you have to squat anyway you can’t see your neighbour and you just choose the one furthest from the main door. Finally you lose the partitions along with any sense of privacy, ah group bonding at its finest! At least these are sometimes accompanied by fine mountain views.

Diamox the wonder drug
So people say that you will naturally acclimatise to altitude, give it a few days and drink plenty of water. These people clearly have not experienced the hammering headaches and sleepless nights of altitude sickness. Although it probably is true, when you’ve only got a few days and you want to enjoy yourself rather than feel like a zombie, diamox is the key! I thank the scientists who formulated this wonderful drug, I have never appreciated the blissful feeling of sinking into a peaceful sleep quite so much. My advice: don’t stick it out, bow to western medicine, those scientists have worked hard to make your life easy! (You may experience sporadic pins and needles in your hands and feet but the pros definitely outweigh the cons).

Yak dung
I realise I have already mentioned this in passing but as I lay here with the sweet smell of burning yak dung wafting past my nose I am reminded just how useful it is. Yak dung is an essential antidote to the cold mountain evening. The six of us in our guesthouse huddled around the iron stove last night, cheering as the lovely Nepalese lady who runs the place lit the yak dung (a feat that eluded the three western guys in the group) providing us with warmth for the night.

Shortly after writing the previous paragraph we were once again lounging around the iron stove when everything around us began to tremble. As the fixtures on the wall began to shake we hastily shoved our feet into our boots and escaped outside. Thankfully there was no damage done in our vicinity (Kyanjin Gompa in the North of Nepal) and a slight rumble is as scary as it got for us.

Simon’s birthday night out

As previously mentioned Simon’s birthday began with a singsong followed at breakfast by a birthday cupcake (supplied by another member of our tour group) with an improvised toothpick candle.

It seemed that after the beautiful views of Everest, and another long bus journey (with a lunch-time frisbee game), Simon had had all the excitement he wanted for his 29th birthday. You’ll be pleased to know that the others in our group and I did not let it end there, and thus we entered our second Tibetan nightclub.

After Simon’s description of Zhangmu you may appreciate that we were a little skeptical of what sort of nightclub this town would offer up. We were pleasantly surprised, this club was a far cry from the heaving modern establishment in Lhasa. Zhangmu’s nightclub was small, beer was bought by the bottle and shared out in glasses a little larger than a shot, and the walls were oddly decorated with small Christmas trees and cardboard rabbits (not easter bunnies as we first thought but in recognition of the Chinese year of the rabbit).

In many ways the club was reminiscent of a village disco, with most people seated at tables around the club perimeter and a few groups of each gender (not mixing) dancing in the centre. I think they were a bit bemused by our western style of dancing (it may have been a bit energetic). At one point as Simon and I approached the dance floor the music switched from western to Tibetan and we fled back to our seats as the locals began their traditional circle dance (a dance similar to line dancing that slowly rotates in a circle, we failed to establish who the leader was or how they knew when to do what).

The night ended with our entire group jumping around to the ‘Summer of ’69’ before vanishing back to the hotel, leaving some relieved locals to circle dance the night away.

Lhasa and the versatility of the yak


Lhasa and the versatility of the yak

I’m writing this on the winding mountain road from Lhasa to Gyantse. It’s a seven hour journey and we’re only a couple of hours in but have already seen some stunning lake views and prayer flag strewn mountains.

During our stay in Lhasa we visited the Potala palace, the Jokhang temple, the Sera monastery and attempted some more geocaching (unsuccessfully-too many people around).

The Potala palace, former home of the Dalai Lama and Tibetan government, is a stunning 13 storey red and white building set in the hillside overlooking Lhasa. Tours around the palace are time-limited due to the number of visitors but inside you can see endless rooms of Buddhist statues and the tombs of the 5th-13th Dalai Lamas.

The Jokhang temple in the centre of Lhasa is the most revered temple in Tibet. Around the temple is a pilgrim circuit known as the Barkhor. Buddhist pilgrims walk this market stall-lined circuit with prayer beads or perpetually spinning prayer wheels in hand. Prayer wheels come in a variety of shapes and sizes, all containing a scroll with a prayer written on. The idea is that the spinning of the wheel releases the prayer into the world. Whilst most pilgrims walk the Barkhor circuit some, wearing aprons and with paddles strapped to their hands, launch themselves to the ground in an act of prostration with every step.

At the Sera monastery you can watch monks debating the finer points of Buddhist philosophy. On our visit, rather than the usual debating, some young monks were being examined. This appeared to consist of (from what we could gather since we don’t speak Tibetan) the young monk stepping up to a microphone in the middle of a hall of seated monks and answering the questions posed by three elders. The young monk paces back and forth in constant motion while answering and clapping his hands together in an exaggerated manner after every few words, presumably to strengthen his point. Occasionally when the young monk is taking too long to answer or has perhaps said something controversial the watching monks all jeer in unison. Not all that unlike the houses of parliament. All I can say is I’m glad my viva wasn’t like that!

All of the Bhuddhist sights are beautifully decorated with colourful fabrics covering walls and ceilings and thousands of statues of different Buddhist deities and their various manifestations. They are also filled with the atmospheric burning incense and yak butter candles.

Yak butter is an incredibly versatile thing; being used for candles, yak butter tea, and probably all of the things you would usually use butter for. Yaks themselves in fact appear to be used for everything, I can tell you now that yak steak, curry, stew and enchiladas are all very tasty, as are yak cheese and yoghurt. Yak wool is also in common use, or failing that you can buy a nice warm looking yak skin jacket or hat. Yak dung can be dried in the sun (complete with hand print if you so desire) then used on walls or roofs for insulation/structural integrity/decoration. Yak dung can also be used as fuel for your stove. I think it’s safe to say that no part of the yak goes unused – as James on our tour (who even ate yak lung) said “the yak is the Swiss army knife of the bovine world”.

We ended our time in Lhasa with a visit to the local nightclub. It was actually a pretty good club, it appears that the done thing is to buy your beer in bulk at the beginning of the night, I’m talking about 30 bottles to be shared by the group, and find yourselves a table as a base for the night. Occasionally in clubs or restaurants in the UK you may get people trying to sell you a rose. Well in Tibetan nightclubs you can buy electric glowing roses and hearts, giant stuffed teddy bears or even candyfloss! What was quite nice was the tier of fruit we had for the table. I also managed to make friends with a Tibetan girl who made it her task for the evening to keep taking me (and sometimes the others in our group) to the dance floor. The only dodgy thing about the place were the squat toilets with mirror doors…