Down the Rabbit Hole I Go
When I was ten years old I became obsessed with learning how to make my own clothes. It wasn’t enough for me to know that a dress can simply exist; I wanted to break it down to its core elements and master the process of creating one. My mother excited about the prospect of showing off an Indian daughter who had sewing as a superpower happily escorted me to our local Beverly’s Fabrics. With her help I selected an 80’s dress pattern using Alexis Carrington as my muse along with four yards of floral fabric in a color that would now be described as Millennial Pink. Mom set me up at our dining room table with her deluxe Singer sewing machine and I spent the next three months teaching myself how to sew. All apologies to Tim Gunn but I wasn’t able to “make it work”. My dress was less 80’s power divorcee and more like a lop-sided tent, avant-garde if you were feeling generous. But all was not lost; I did learn what a yoke is and can replace a lost button for you if necessary.
This compulsive need to know things has haunted me my entire life. I’m addicted to the adrenaline rush I get when I conquer something and once that curiosity switch has been flipped to “on” I have this insatiable need to pursue it. Just ask anyone who has ever lived with me and they will tell you about my bouts with everything from growing cannabis in my bedroom closet (I told my mother it was basil, she suggested using Miracle Grow) to becoming a pilot in the United States Air Force (a blog post for another day). Wine has definitely been my longest engaging pursuit, having first discovered it as an 18 year-old server at a restaurant in Monterey. My boss tasked me with learning the wines by the glass, just enough to be able to describe them to our guests but the basics only led to bigger questions. Why was Chardonnay buttery yet Sauvignon Blanc grassy? Why was the Pinot Noir from France more expensive than the one from California? And how exactly did they get a wine to taste like blueberries and bananas? I hunted for the answers in books and trade magazines and yet the mystery only widened. I didn’t realize it at the time but this is the nature of wine; you can never know everything, the information is inexhaustible. It’s the ultimate rabbit hole, one dangling carrot leading to another, a never-ending Valhalla for the eternally curious. I was hooked.
My therapist Marilyn tells me that humans are hard-wired for habit; the survival of our species depends on it. I am indeed a creature of habit and curiosity except the rabbit hole that I find myself in now is looking more like a passage to India. What started off as a simple project to make something from my friend’s new Indian cookbook has now turned into an obsessive desire to learn everything there is to know about Indian food. My preliminary research tells me this is not going to be an easy endeavor. India is vast and although there is a centralized government it is certainly not homogeneous. There are 29 states and 7 union territories with each state featuring not only its own language, culture and foods, but its own history, geography and set of religions. One must also take into account the influences left behind by pilgrims, explorers, traders, conquerers and invaders. Much like studying for the Master Sommelier Exam, an outline and an organized plan of attack is needed in order to take on this Herculean challenge. As luck would have it, a follower on Instagram tipped me off to Raja, Rasoi Aur Anya Kahaniyaan, a documentary series highlighting the major culinary regions and foods of India. It’s available on Netflix with English subtitles. Each episode provides an overview of a region along with expert interviews accompanied by hunger-inducing cinematography. I took notes as I went along and catalogued dishes, ingredients or cooking techniques that piqued my curiosity for further research. This is a very basic and certainly not a definitive outline. If I left a region or dish out, it wasn’t intentional and I’ll probably cover it at some point. As you can see India is way more than just butter chicken and saag paneer.
RAJASTHAN - India’s desert
Influenced by the war-like lifestyle of its inhabitants and dry, desert like conditions of the region. Scarcity of water and lack of green vegetables and vegetation influenced the cuisine. Mostly vegetarian but Rajputs eat meat. Food that is heavily spiced and that could be stored for several days without heating.
daal bhati churma
ghatte ki subzi
papad ki subzi
DELHI – The Old City
Mughal, Muslim, Turkish and Afghan influences merged to create a wide and varied cuisine. Fried and oily foods (supposedly to protect the stomach from effects of drinking the local water), legendary street food, pit roasting influenced by sultanate rulers, home of butter chicken. Nawab and Rampur cuisine. Chandni Chowk, Khari Baoli market.
bedmi poori and aloo
chole bhature (also Punjabi)
daulat ki chaat
khameri roti (to eat with kebabs and meat)
Ishtew (English stew)
Jalebi and desserts of all kinds
UTTAR PARDESH (UP) – Home of the Taj Mahal
Major cities are Lucknow and Agra. Awadhi, Nawab, Mughlai and middle-eastern influences. Dum phukt cooking (air or pressure cooking). Biryani has Farsi origins and means pit. Lucknow famous for its kebabs. Nawab cooks of Oudh were legendary.
Gelouti kebab (melts in your mouth)
Black carrot halwa
PUNJAB – The Bread Basket of India
Located on the border to Pakistan (Pakistan was part of Punjab prior to partition in 1947). Main city is Amritsar. Food is heavily influenced by Afghanistan and Persia (tandoor came from Afghanistan). Punjabi’s are known for their strength and valor. Lots of ghee, mustard oil and milk in the cooking. Dhabas or roadside stalls.
Sarson ka saag
Chapli kebab (Pakistan side)
GUJARAT – Taste of Western India
Climate is very diverse but dry, arid, hot and desert-like in many places. Due to religious influence (Jainism), a lot of vegetarian food. Parsi influence (they love eggs). Emphasis on seasonal vegetables, lentils, millet and sweets. Element of sweetness in the food helps combat excessive heat in the region. Mix of sweet, sour, salt helps replenish electrolytes. Thali may include 20-25 different items representing value and various tastes.
Fried besan snacks
Masala omelette (Parsi)
BENARES – Holy Pilgrimage
Ganga, Varanasi, holy area filled with pilgrims. Legend has it if you die in the holy rivers then you are liberated and can attain nirvana. Influence of vegetarian and Ayurvedic food. Allahabad is the confluence of three rivers. Rich fertile soil for potatoes. Cannabis is smoke here for spiritual enlightenment. Street food was not common here but became a necessity in order to feed pilgrims.
KASHMIR – At the Crossroads
Persian, silk route and Afghan influences. Muslim vs. Hindu Pundits. Kashmiris love their rice and it grows well here. Floating gardens and markets. Saag or greens is a must with dinner. Fruits and nuts introduced by Persians. Kashmiri Chilli powder (not hot), morel mushrooms. Jammu region features Dogra cuisine which is not as elaborate – lentils, veggies, horsegram, ambal pumpkin. Wazwan feasts. Kesar or saffron.
Different types of bread
HIMACHAL PARDESH – Host to the Dalai Lama & Fruit Basket of India
Himachali food is a blend of Tibetan and Punjabi food with some Kashimri and Nepalese influence. Kangri Dham similar to Wazwan, a vegetarian feast served by Brahmins. Buddhist dishes.
Lentil and Yogurt dishes
Tsampa flour (Buddhist)
Largest city is Chennai. Maratha influence. Rice, beans and lentils used heavily along with vegetables, dairy, spices, coconut and tamarind as a souring agent. Food is traditionally eaten on a banana leaf. Breakfast includes idli or dosa and rice with sambar and rasam. Chettinad cuisine.
Degree filter coffee
Mysore refers to both the city and region of Karnataka. Food is influenced by the Udupi style. Tamarind (Date of India). Anglo-Indian dishes. Black pepper enticed explorers to the region. Coorg region known for coffee. Kachampuli coorg vinegar
KERALA – Land of Seafood and Spices
Heavy use of coconut (milk, grated and oil). Seafood. Spices (black pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, clove, ginger). Tamarind and Bananas. Mopplai influence.
Also known as Deccani cuisine. Muslim foods such as kebabs, pilafs, kormas and yogurt dishes combined with the flavors of the south – mustard deeds, cinnamon, curry leaves, hot chilies, peanuts, tamarind and coconut milk.
Til ki chutney
Pathar ka Gosht
Bengalis love their fish, especially Hilsa. Bengalis are very proud of their food. Simplest of dishes gain complexity with the addition of phoron (traditional mix of pungent spices). Panch phoron includes cumin, nigella, fenugreek, anise and mustard seeds. Robust fish curries and Bengali sweets are highly regarded. I could spend months studying just Bengali food and I just might!
Dimer dhokkar dalna
Shrimp Malai Curry
Bengali Lamb Curry
Macher Matha Diye Moong Dhal
Bhaja (especially Eggplant)
Tangra Macher Jhol
Main city is Mumbai but Poona is equally as important. Starting around Maharashtra one can draw a line that begins to separate the wheat-eating north (Kashmir is the exception) with the rice eating south. Mahastrians eat both but rice is given a special place of prominence. Expert blending of sweet, salty, hot and sour flavors. Famous kala masala (cinnamon, cardamom, cumin, sesame seeds and pieces of blackened coconut). Alphonso mango. Kohlapuri, and Malvani cuisine.
Kolhapuri Mutton or Chicken
GOA – fusion of Portugal & Indian cuisine
Rice, seafood, coconut, vegetables, meat, pork and local spices. Similar to Malvani or Konkani food. Use of kokum or mangosteen. Fish is very important. 450 years of Portuguese rule.
Goan Fish Curry
Mussel Rawa fry
Goan Pork Pies