The food of India is as varied as it’s people. In the north there are tasty tandoors & meat centric dishes with rich gravies, which are good but I soon grew tired of the richness & lack of fresh vegetables. Not to mention a daily dose of butter chicken cannot be anyone’s idea of healthy eating.
Arriving in Mumbai brought not only new sights & sounds but a whole new cuisine. Mumbai is the home of behl puri, my favorite street food, but also boasts fantastic fish dishes & curries. The cuisine of Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the capitol, is redolent with coconut, cashews & peanuts. Eggplant,one of my favorite vegs, is prominently figured as well as okra aka bhindi. The most famous Mumbai dish is “Bombay duck” which is really not duck at all but a dish made from sundried fish. I never had the courage to order Bombay duck, but now wish I had.
We had some absolutely divine food in Mumbai, ranging from the humble Behl puri (eaten from a cone of newspaper while standing up on a crowded street) to huge, sweet grilled prawns at one of Mumbai’s finest restaurants.
I even had a terrific (& pricey) ham & gruyere sandwich on a baguette at the Sea View Lounge in the famous Taj hotel. (yeah, I know, give me a break, already)
One of the great things about traveling with WCT is that is she is always pulling out these magazine & newspaper clippings about obscure & invariably interesting “must see” restaurants, shops & sights. Britannia was on one such scrap of paper. Britannia has been an institution since 1923 when Mr. Rasheed Kohinoor, signed a 99 year lease & opened his doors to British soldiers stationed old Bombay. Kohinoor was an Iranian Zoroastrian & like all exiles, had a hankering for his native foods. The junior Kohinoor, who is 90, is a fixture at Britannia. He is also a vocal anglophile (“Bring back the British” he crowed) & was eager to show us a letter on Her Majesty’s stationary. The fact that it was signed by HRH’s lady in waiting was an irrelevant & minor detail. Britannia’s signature dish, is berry pulav and the recipe is a secret. It’s a tasty rice pilaf with stewed chicken, lamb or veg, & topped with fried cashews, crisp onions & a delicious current-like berry imported from Iran. If you want to experience a bit of the old raj at Britannia, come soon as the lease expires in 2022.
Next stop Kerala, where coconut is king and the smell of warm coconut oil permeates the air. Everything, and I mean everything is cooked in coconut oil. Even potato chips. Kerala is also at the center of the Indian spice trade. The main spices in Keralan cuisine are cardamom, cinnamon, coriander, cloves, cumin, ginger, tumeric & peppers. These all purported to have medicinal qualities and are often used in ayurvedic medicine. (Kerala is the mecca of Ayurveda)
Curry powder does not exist here. The closest facsimile is garam masala which means “hot mix”. Rather, curries are made from a paste of a variety of spices, chilies and things like ginger, tumeric & garlic. In short, keralan food is fantastic. I feasted on prawn & mango curry which had sweet & plump prawns covered in a spicy & tangy sauce with big chunks of mango in Kochi. In Kovalam, Gwyn & escaped the healthy but boring, ayurvedic buffet and had a memorable prawn feed. We met a charming man the day prior who ran a small beachside fish shack. He had no menu, only a notebook with handwritten notes from previous diners attesting to what a fantastic meal they had eaten. We took such a liking to him that we requested one kg of prawns, and before we had time to change our minds, off he went to the market. That night, as we walked down to the beach, in the distance, we could make out our perfectly set table, complete with plaid tablecloth and candles. We had the entire beach & star filled sky to ourselves. Upon our arrival, he proudly showed us the heap of cleaned & spice rubbed prawns, all ready to plop on the grill. The perfectly cooked prawns were served with a fragrant rice spiced with cumin, raisins & cashews. We devoured that mountain of prawns and washed it all down with beer served on the down-low from a paperbag. Sluuuuuurp.
South India is also home to banana leaf thalis, dosas, idli, vadi & sambar. This is good eats at it’s best. There are “meals” places on every corner. You just walk in, sit down and after the staff & customers stop staring at the foreigners long enough to figure out you aren’t lost, you get a banana leaf put in front of you. And then the food comes, and comes & comes until you fold over your banana leaf which tells them “I’m topped off, full, stuffed, Could. Not. Eat. Another. Bite.” Usually you get rice, a papdadam, some sort chutneys, sambar (savory veg stew) and maybe one or 2 other cooked veg dishes. Oh, and this is all eaten with your hand so be prepared to get a little messy. I just make a little well in my rice & pour my sambar in it, and, well, go to town. I am serving banana leaf thalis in my backyard next summer. Who’s in?
Some foods are even a bit too weird for me. I mean what exactly is viral fish? do I even want to know? and spine & brain fry? yeah….. not so much.
but sometimes, and by sometimes I mean once, you get a hankering for some american pizza. was it the best pizza? not even close. was it edible? yep. But best of all it reminded me of home.