Delicious definitions

Delicious definitions

“What is colour?” my classmate’s question in the chemistry class elicited no answer. Colour is colour, replied the elderly lecturer, and went ahead with his lecture. He was more interested in its chemistry than a prosaic definition. So if colour is simply colour, then what is chapati?

Or, for that matter, bonda? Well, then, here it is: chapati is thin soft whole bread, and bonda is a deep-fried lentil dumpling. And what is a flaky pastry dough filled with spiced potato and peas? Well, sir, it is our humble samosa or smosa as the Punjabis call it.

This is how Indian eateries in the US have defined our dishes for the non-Indian gourmet audience. Whenever we troop into an Indian restaurant in the US, while the rest of the family scans the menu card for the food they want to order, I concentrate on the meticulous description of the dishes.

So, when I order puris, what do I get? I get light, fluffy, puffed and deep-fried whole wheat bread. And a plain dosa is nothing but thin rice and lentil crepe. If this is filled with potatoes and onions, it will be called masala dosa; if red chutney is spread on it, it is Mysore masala dosa. If this thin rice crepe is filled with mildly spiced mixed vegetables, then what you get is a vegetable dosa.

What is a vegetable utthapa? It is thick rice and lentil pancake topped with mixed vegetables. How do you define the humble pongal? The answer is: steamed raw rice smashed sautéed with pepper, cumin, daal, garnished with ghee and cashew nuts. An adai is a pancake made with varieties of pulses. It is served with avial, a Kerala style sauce made of garden fresh vegetables, coconut paste and spices.

If aromatic Indian basmati rice is cooked with choice meat or mixed vegetables flavoured with saffron and exotic Indian herbs on a low heat, a bowl of biryani will be on the table. Nine garden fresh vegetables sautéed in fresh herbs with cashews and raisins will fetch you navaratna shahi kurma. To go with this, we need tandoori rotis, right? Then we need to order whole wheat flour bread baked in a clay oven. If it is baked in a tawa, we will be consuming tawa rotis. Want parotas? Then order multi-layered bread made from maida flour.

At a Niagara Indian hotel, I saw tourists munching on fresh cut potato, spinach and onion fritters dipped in batter and deep-fried as the menu card described it. Back home, it is called bajji. At Saravanas in New Jersey, the same bajji is nothing but thick plantain/onion slices coated with chickpea flour deep-fried and served with chutney or sambar.

Time for desserts. Let us order for ricotta cheese bathed in sweet condensed milk and flavoured with pistachios, saffron and rose water. Don’t get confused, it is rasmalai; deep-fried Indian cheese balls soaked in sweet syrup are what you gulp down as gulab jamuns.

If dahi is plain homemade yogurt, then what is chutney? Alas! It has escaped a definition. Too hot to describe? Or, like colour being just colour, chutney is just chutney?  
Anyhow, happy eating.

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