Unfortunately it wasn’t me who was lucky enough to travel to the land of Bollywood, Diwali and the Taj Mahal but my friend Sarah has shared some travel stories about her foodie adventure.
Which part of India did you go to?
From mid-November to mid-December we went to Delhi (both Old and New), Agra, Rajasthan, Mumbai and Goa.
Did you notice any regional differences in terms of their food or general way of life?
Food patterns did differ between the different regions and between the north and south. In the south, they eat a lot more rice and seafood is more common, whereas further north there is more chapati (flat bread) eaten.
I noticed that basically all the street food was heavily deep fried – this was quite shocking and I wondered how much of it they are actually eating on a daily basis as well as how it is affecting their health. I also wondered whether it has always been like this or if it’s a recent change that may lead to a massive increase in obesity- and diabetes-related deaths in the near future.
We did some cooking classes while we were in India, but it was a bit of a shame because I really wanted to learn authentic home-style cooking instead of the typical dishes that you can find in any restaurant. However, some were certainly new. What I found with these dishes though, was that a lot of butter and cream was added to the recipe. This doesn’t happen in the homes and it made the dishes so rich that after eating like that for a couple of weeks I got a bit sick of it.
There were certainly different dishes for different areas. For example, in the south there is a lot more biryani (a spiced rice dish) and it is known for its dosa (a fermented crispy pancake with potato filling). Jodphur (Rajasthan) is known for its mutton curry.
What is the most memorable food experience you had while you were in India?
During one of our days we stopped at a really small rooftop restaurant and “hotel”. The rooms were the size of a prison cell and probably looked the same too – barely any light but the small rooftop restaurant has to be one of my favourite places we ate. It was a family-based operation and the food was good authentic food – just what I had been looking forward to! The food was relatively plain but it was good to experience what would be cooked in the home.
Another of my favourite experiences was when we ate at a Sikh temple. There was a festival on and we were able to eat there for lunch. It was a massive set up with a huge number of people in the kitchen in a production line who were preparing vast amounts of food. We were taken to the ‘dining room’ where everyone was sitting in rows on a mat on the floor and the ‘servery staff’ were wandering around with pails and ladles to dish out the food. It certainly was quite an experience.
What was the food culture like compared to NZ? Is communal eating a big part of their culture?
Communal eating is a big part of Indian culture, as I mentioned before in the Sikh Temple everyone eats together in a big room even though they aren’t necessarily eating ‘together’.
It’s hard to say what the culture was like as it is such a large country and there are many different main dishes in different areas. Indian culture is also affected by the two extremes within the population – the poor and the extremely wealthy.
Did you have a favourite dish that you tried?
Yes I certainly do have a favourite dish, several in fact… dal Makhani (black dal with coconut cream) and an aubergine masala. So delish.
The top secret to any great curry is making sure that you cook the tomatoes, oil, garlic, ginger and spices on a mild heat until you can see that the tomatoes have separated from the oil. Doing this helps to slowly infuse the flavour. The low to medium heat is the key.
What sweet food do Indians eat?
Indians eat sweet treats but they don’t tend to have very many desserts. The main food is the main meal and then there are truffle sized treats. There are certainly many many places to buy different sweets!!
Gulab jamun is one dessert that is very well-known and is a sickly-sweet dough ball that has been deep fried and then soaked in a sugar syrup. It is served warm and one or two bites are quite nice, but then it’s too much!
In my opinion Indians are much better at savoury dishes – there was this one sweet that was bright orange and the wet batter was piped into hot fat to be deep fried! And then it was soaked in sugar syrup! It was horrible!
Is obesity/ malnourishment a big problem over there?
Yes and yes! Both obesity and malnutrition are big problems over in India. With the amount of deep fried food that’s available at such cheap prices, it is no wonder that obesity is becoming more of an issue. The majority of the street food was deep fried. This may be good for food safety but it is definitely not good for their health!
All the sweet foods are loaded with sugar – beyond what I could even comprehend on a day-to-day basis. This is before they are even deep fried! I can see that fast food outlets are going to become more and more established which will be even worse for their rates of obesity. This will be where many middle class and younger people will go to eat.
Malnutrition on the other hand is a vast issue. Although I didn’t see this much on this trip, I did see a lot of young children with kwashiorkor (a pronounced belly that makes it look like they are well fed). This is a state of protein malnourishment. There were a lot of children who were sent to beg for money for their families but you hardly ever saw their parents in some areas. It was so hard to turn away a hungry child, we here in NZ and in other Western countries are just so privileged!
What is the religious influence like on their food culture and traditions?
Religion in India is a massive part and the majority of the population are Hindu. It is really amazing to see how such a large group of people are all so into their own religion and spirituality. Many of them are vegetarian for religious reasons and Hindus don’t eat beef as the cow is sacred.