An epicurean journey

Food for thought

An epicurean journey

Nothing represents the rich tapestry of India’s multi-cultural fabric better than food. Join Tanushree Podder as she travels to different parts of the country for dining experiences ranging from the outlandish to the sublime.

Travel and food are two faces of the same coin. One cannot exist without the other. The basic premise is that travellers have to eat as they traverse through different terrains. Beyond the ‘eating to live’ theory lies the human need to savour different flavours and experience the diversity of food. This makes travelling doubly enjoyable. As a traveller, I have realised that the food experiences one collects on the trips play a very important part in reinforcing images of the places one visits. The cuisine of a place speaks volumes about the lifestyle, culture and habits of the people in the region. A hungry traveller understands the importance of food in his scheme of things.

Those who do not like travelling often ask why should one leave the comforts of home and familiar food and surroundings to struggle with the irregularity, unfamiliarity and a certain level of discomfort that is inevitable while travelling. My reply to them is that travelling educates and informs you like no book ever could.

Perhaps that is why St Augustine said, “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”

As far as food is concerned, the range of food one comes across while travelling is mind-boggling. Weddings are the best occasions to get a taste of culture, rituals and cuisines of a region. If you are not invited, just gate-crash is my motto. I have done it a dozen times, and every time I have done it, I have been welcomed with open arms and returned with very pleasant memories and a new set of friends. While driving around Kodagu, I invited myself to a Coorgi wedding, which was enroute, and fell in love with the pandi curry and kadabu that was served to me after the wedding. Another time at Bikaner, I walked in at a venue to experience the unique marriage called Sawa and drooled over the gatte ki sabzi and ghevar. Yet another time at Bhubaneswar, I stumbled upon a local wedding and found my palate had developed a penchant for chhena-poda-pitha.

The most memorable wedding feast is the one I enjoyed about three decades ago at Srinagar. Terrorism had not ruined the State then and the locals had not taken an aversion to curious journalists. Hospitality still warmed the households and tourists were welcome to the State.

While wandering around the market, I lost my way and found myself in a narrow street decorated with shamiana. As I asked my way around, I stumbled into a wedding. In an impromptu gesture, the generous family invited me to attend the celebrations. Delighted, I accepted the offer. What followed was a lavish traditional feast or wazwan, where I struggled to do justice to the 15-odd kinds of meat dishes piled lovingly on my platter.
Born with itchy feet, I have covered a reasonable amount of ground across the globe, yet so much more remains to be explored. Perhaps it was wanderlust that led me to marry an army officer, which meant moving to a new place every other year, many times to the remotest parts of the country. Fortunately for me, my spouse is a willing partner in my quest to explore fresh pastures.

For years, we had been planning a trip across the vast country. Detailed plans were made and discarded, the weather vagaries taken into consideration, expenses worked out, luxuries pruned, and finally, one winter morning, we set out in our new car, eager to test its durability on Indian roads.

For two months, we criss-crossed from North to South and East to West, taking in as many villages, towns and cities as we could accommodate, enjoying the hospitality and hostility of people we came across. To be fair, there was no hostility. Indians are a hospitable lot. I can’t really complain. For most part, I was feted with local flavours by simple folk of the region at the stopovers we made.

At the end of the two-month sojourn, I returned with thousands of pictures, millions of memorable moments, my diary filled with a vast variety of recipes and scores of phone numbers of friends we had made enroute. These, and most importantly, the culinary experience gleaned from the journeys, have given me enough food for thought. Life teaches you lessons you never forget, especially if you learn them the hard way. Mine came from the tyre bursts, mechanical snags and stomach cramps after the indiscriminate food indulgences on the way.

As I cut across the state of Rajasthan, like most travellers, I was fascinated by the colourful fabrics, impressive architecture, intricate designs and the robust music of the place, but it was the authentic Rajasthani cuisine that remains embedded in my mind. As we travelled through the barren lands devoid of fresh green vegetables, I tasted one of the most delicious dishes of the region. Devised to enrich their fare, people from the desert frontiers made creative use of dried desert beans known as sangri, along with dried berries (ker) to make ker sangri ki sabzi — a rich blend of dried vegetables dished up with a liberal dose of oil, raisins and spices. I presume it was the need to cook without using too many vegetables that led to dishes like gatte ki sabzi and mangode ki sabzi; both made out of different types of lentils.

For the warrior clan of Rajputs, it was unthinkable to serve a meal without meat and thus the famous laal and safed maas were born.

Getting adventurous

Being a Bengali, I was tickled with the thought of enjoying rosogullas at Bikaner. We opted to halt at the famous ‘Chotu Motu Joshi’, which some friends had declared unmissable. Since I had heard that camel milk was used extensively in the region, I was a tad apprehensive about the kulfi, which was the shop’s specialty. The kachori turned out to be the best I had ever tasted, and despite my reservations, I did try the kesar kulfi and am glad I did because, camel milk or not, it was easily the creamiest and the tastiest I have ever had in my life. The rosogullas! Well, it was like selling igloo to an Eskimo.

As we drove from the arid districts of Barmer and entered the villages of Gujarat, we realised that the cuisine had undergone a sea change in both taste and flavour.
Our first faux pas was to ask for chicken biryani at a small eatery on the outskirts of Ahmedabad. The waiter whispered conspiratorially — “We don’t serve alcohol and meat, but I could give you an address where you can get both.”

Instantly, I recalled one of our friends saying, “I would have settled at Ahmedabad. It is such a beautiful city, but not a place for a hardcore non-vegetarian alcohol-lover like me.”
Refusing the friendly waiter’s offer, we ordered the typical Gujarati Thali, which came with bhakri and five tiny bowls of different kinds of vegetable preparations like undhiyo, kadi and delicious chutneys and pickles.

Two days in the State, I realised that Gujarat is a vegetarian’s food paradise. The snacks of the region are legendary. We freaked out on dhokla, khakra and fafda without worrying about the calorie count. We were still munching on the delicious bajra-methi khakra as we drove out of Gujarat and scattered on the back seat of the car were packets of sev and gathia.

Out of the ordinary

While there have been delightful gastronomic experiences, there have also been some embarrassing moments during the long journeys I have undertaken to different parts of the country. Never had I imagined that the adage, ‘One man’s meat is another man’s poison,’ would prove true until I ventured into the interiors of Bastar. Braving the thick forest of teak, tendu, sal and mahua trees, I found my way into a cluster of huts in a remote village of the adivasis. The friendly folk readily posed for a photo session, after which they agreed to perform their bison horn dance.

After the dance, on their insistence, I agreed to share a cuppa. What followed was the most awkward situation I have ever faced in my life. A woman served me the local brew known as mahua, in a cup made of tendu leaves, with an accompaniment of the famous ‘red ant chutney’, served on tendu leaves.

The mahua turned out to be a potent drink meant to reel the bravest of hearts, and the red ant chutney... well, I swallowed the fiery stuff and gagged. It was my conditioning that refused to accept ants as edible matter. Born a Bengali and having travelled through the country, I can safely say that this was one stray case where the mind ruled over the palate.

One sweltering summer morning, we reached Kolhapur, a princely state of Maharashtra, famous for its chappals. Besides its chappals, the bustling, dusty town is also known for its fiery mutton dishes. The Kolhapuri Mutton with its two kinds of curries, the tambada rassa and pandhara rassa, turned out to be a real test for my taste buds. With my tongue on fire, eyes and nose watering with the impact, I devoured the fare with great difficulty, wishing I had stuck to my favourite puran poli and bharli vangi. That didn’t stop me from buying a jar of the mutton pickle, though.

Whilst on the Maharashtrian favourites, I must mention the Malvani cuisine. The coastal region of Malvan is famous for its fish preparations. From the spicy crabs and clams to fried surmai, sol kadi and bangda curry, the Malvani cuisine is a feast for fish lovers. With their inborn affinity for the Piscean species, a Bengali can always be trusted to find the best places that serve fish.

Foreign influence

During a vacation in Goa, I was introduced to local sossegud (take-it-easy) attitude as well as some of the most exotic non-vegetarian food I have ever had. The sour and tangy, spicy and peppery fish and pork preparations of the region have tickled tourists’ palates with amazing effectiveness. The beaches are a dream. Together with the cuisine, they are guaranteed to bring back the visitors. With the Portuguese influence on their cuisine, the people of Goa have many delectable dishes like vindaloo, sorpotel and ambotik to offer to the hungry souls.

It was while we were posted at Bangalore that we drove up to the tip of the country, traversing through much of coastal Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, and I fell in love with the cuisine of these states. Be it the meen pollichathu from Kerala, or the Chettinad chicken from Tamilnadu, or the delectable gojju from Karnataka, I found my palate warming up to them.

Bengalis love food as much as they love music and politics, if not more. Like most bongs, I am a foodie. Although I have lived outside Bengal all my life, I experience the special tug for the authentic bong food periodically. This takes me to Kolkata once every year. There are two things I do in Kolkata — shop till my wallet is almost empty since there is no other city that offers such a diverse range of products at a wallet-happy price, and binge on Bengali food till the innards launch a strong protest.

Although most people identify Bengali food with mustard fish, the cuisine has a vast range of flavours. A traditional meal begins with a serving of the greens and fried bitter gourd. We love all kinds of fries. There are potato fries, cauliflower fries, brinjal, and even raw banana and pumpkin fries; in short, almost all vegetables that can bear frying. A light stew of vegetables, known as shukto, akin to avial, and the chholar dal, with its share of coconut, are popular dishes. My personal favourite, chorchori, is served during Durga Pujo with the divine khichuri.

Fond memories

One of my fondest memories is about the time when, as a new bride, I visited my husband’s uncle. We were served a meal fit for royalty with a range of fish preparations. There were tiny fish crisply fried, crunchy and delicious. Then there were three kinds of fish in jhol and jhal, steamed and fried, in mustard and in yogurt. Even the dal flaunted a large rohu head. There was an endless variety of vegetables. Fried and curried, none of them was cooked with onion and garlic so as to retain the specific flavour of the vegetable.

The kosha mangsho was memorable. The range of chutneys made my eyes pop with delight. The grand finale with mishti doi and rosogulla left me breathless. I pecked at each delicacy with daintiness befitting a shy bride, but regretted it forever. This was a feast designed to be enjoyed whole heartedly, to be savoured and celebrated without inhibition.

I was terrified at the implication of the feast. Was I expected to turn out a similar banquet for visiting relatives, I wondered. It would take a superlative cook with loads of time to dish out even a third of the fare. Thankfully, no one expected a non-resident daughter in law, a working one at that, to be proficient in traditional Bengali cooking.
India is a vast country where food habits and recipes change every few hundred kilometres. Traditional recipes were created with attention to the weather, availability of ingredients, and beliefs.

Each and every place we visited had something new to offer — tastes and flavours, customs and traditions, handicrafts — we were exposed to an entire range of new experiences.

Hundreds of meals across different states, and hundreds of happy memories! Each meal opened a tiny window into the world of people we came across, giving us a perspective of their lives.

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