Thursday, 26 November 2015

Eating my way around India - the six stages

Stage one - dazed and confused
Jet lag aside, arriving in any new city around the world with the need to find food can be a daunting task. Go with the guide books or TripAdvisor and you'll probably find hoards of tourists and you feel right at home. I'm not against using these methods, and in fact some of the best places we ate at came from these, however even with these and in a big city such as Delhi, your task may still be a tricky one. So not really with it to make a decision having arrived at 4am, our hostel gave us a recommendation of a place for lunch (sleep took priority over breakfast), to introduce our western tummies to the Indian cuisine. Yes they are referring to the dreaded Delhi belly, and we were told by an Indian guy on the plane, that even he has to give himself a few days to adjust after returning from university in the UK!

The safe bet was Haldiram's, a bustling, brightly lit canteen near Connaught Place, offering fast food thalis and tandoori kebabs, supplemented by a sweet counter for afters. Tossing the salad aside, the dishes provided an easy route into the local food, along with the daal and rice, the thalis came with a yoghurt and our first of many galub jamuns (a round doughnut like dessert, deep fried and soaked in sugar syrup). The tandoori paneer started off my love for paneer throughout my time in India. It was accompanied by a coriander raita, which I was first acquainted with on our flight over. It's a yoghurt based dip mixed with blended coriander and a hint of chilli, and one which I think all curry houses back in England should serve alongside papadoms and mango chutney!

Stage two - stepping out of your comfort zone
Once you've successfully devoured and digested your first meal in India, you'll start to feel a certain level of confidence, and so delighted to have one non-sickness inducing lunch under our belt, we headed out in search of dinner in the Paharganj area of Delhi. Here the streets are lined with guesthouses, shops and cafes and a whole tonne of rickshaws and motorbikes weaving their way through food stalls, people, cows, dogs and the many backpackers that find themselves there.

A little way down the main bazaar away from New Delhi train station, we found a couple of small cafes with the odd tourist and decided to head for one. Madan Cafe was small and not all that inviting inside, but pull up a plastic chair on the roadside and you'll soon settle in as you watch the evening throng of people and traffic go by. Our bargain £3.50 evening meal consisted of a thali and a masala chai for me, and a roti, curry and lassi for James. Taking in the view of the hustle and bustle of the main strip in the Paharganj, I mopped up my daal with my roti, which although only lukewarm (praying that it did not make me ill), the daal was flavoursome but with very little spice, matching nicely with the spiciness of the vegetable curry and the cooling accompanying yoghurt.

On our walk back down the main bazaar with the confidence still lingering, if not feeling stronger, we bought a mound of shortbread type biscuits heated on an iron plate and served in a newspaper pocket. Nothing too exciting here, but are a great snack to have with a little cup of chai.

Stage three - the inevitable bout of sickness
Not something to go into any great detail about but its safe to say I lost my appetite for a while...

Stage four - bold and brazen
Although the sickness knocked me back a peg or two it wasn't long before I'm back at stage two trying new things and being even bolder than before bringing me onto stage four, after all - if I've survived Delhi belly once, I know I can beat it again!

Of course being bold and brazen is the only real way to discover what India has to offer, from its deep fried flying saucer shaped kachori, a spicy and snack-like, yet still very filling, street food or the slightly bolder mirchi bajji (deep fried battered green chilli), to the sweet indian treats such as jalebi, a deep fried pretzel shaped crispy batter soaked in sugar syrup, incredibly sweet and super indulgent. These sorts of snacks can be found on the many street food stalls - just look for the large woks filled with oil and spot the freshly cooked ones!

Our love for trying Indian street food ended at our last stop in Kolkata, but ended on a huge high when we discovered kati rolls. These are parathas (a type of Indian bread) coated in egg and fried, a filling of your choice is then added - mutton, chicken or paneer, alongside salad, chillies, a squeeze of lime and chilli sauce. Absolutely mouthwateringly delicious! I had a paneer kati roll, James had the mutton, both equally as tasty (if I had to admit it, James won here as the mutton along with the sautéed onions melted away in your mouth). The kati rolls had a fresher taste than the curries that we had been eating, provided by the lime and coriander, and absolutely dripping with juices - it was a messy treat! If you're in Kolkata - try Hot Kati Roll on Park Street, the one with hoards of people outside hunched over their kati rolls!

Stage five - establishing your favourites
Once you've had a few trial and errors - one of the latter being the slighly bland tasting palek paneer (or to put simply a blended spinach curry, little spice and chunks of paneer), then you start to establish what you like and what you don't like, and will re-order time and time again.

I think it was in Udaipur that we discovered jeera rice, in a cafe along the river called Little Prince, and then continued to order it throughout most of our time in Rajasthan. All it simply is, is cumin fried rice - fragrant and greasy. Filth. But understandably anything fried will taste great, and we often ordered it alongside a mix veg curry, a paneer tikka masala and gobhi paratha, again all firm favourites. The paratha is yet another fried Indian staple, a bread that is often stuffed with potato or cauliflower along with an array of spices. And thanks to a cookery class in Pushkar I now know how to make parathas for when I return home!

Stage 6 - seeking out something different
I love a curry, but I'm not going to lie, the craving for sausage and mash (thanks to a couple we met on a camel trek giving it the pie and mash chat) did kick in fairly early on. Thankfully there were points that we were able to stray and still have something tasty to eat, such as the falafel wraps in the hippy and religious place of Pushkar in Rajasthan. For 120 rupees (just over a quid), you can get a paneer, yellow cheese (burger cheese), fries and hummus wrap. Along with the refreshing, crisp salad inside the wrap, it made for a welcomed alternative to the curries and the fries were the greasy, homemade kind - a little home comfort! This Israeli cuisine was quite prominent, particularly in Rajasthan, partly due to the number of Israeli tourists that flock there, so even later on in Rishikesh, in Uttarakhand (a little further north), we revisited the hummus wrap!

If hummus and falafel doesn't do it for you, you can always rely on Italian. However, many of the places we visited in India were vegetarian, and even when meat was available, it was mainly chicken or mutton (which can be lamb or goat as we later found out), so unfortunately no chance of my favourite spag bol! 

There was so much more to see and taste in India, and I'm sure when we visit again in the future - perhaps further north or south - a whole new stage will be added as we discover more of the regional cuisine variances India has to offer.

Yelly-fi-felly-food-belly x