My New Year's resolution is the unachievable kind. I'm good with that; I intend to renew it. It's my intention to move out of my comfort zone in the kitchen. That zone has become too restrictive now that I am relying more on plants for protein. I'm on a quest to broaden my approach to seasonings. What better way to start than with a firsthand experience with one of the world's oldest vegetarian cuisines?
So, I spent two weeks last month in India on a "real" food adventure with Intrepid Travel.* The trip exceeded my expectations every day. Here are three quick luncheon scenarios to give you some idea of where our itinerary took us:
On our first full day in Delhi we joined hundreds of guests that were served lunch in a Sikh temple. First we removed our shoes, and sat with worshipers for a few minutes. Our guide then led us on a quick tour of the adjacent kitchen containing a row of bubbling cauldrons and a griddle the size of a double bed. Teams of volunteers were cleaning, cutting, cooking and serving lunch to a steady stream of diners all seated cross-legged on the floor in the temple’s large dining hall. We joined them and received ladles-full of curry served with warm chapati.
At lunchtime two days later we standing up around a table in an open market on the corner of a busy intersection in Jaipur hungrily snarfing up the street foods our guide brought us. (The sweets were just as tasty.) We had another memorable lunch three days later at the end of a morning Jeep safari through a village and surrounding farm land in rural Bijaipur. The setting was a lake resort where the resident chef demonstrated an elegant smoked mutton (aka goat) curry.
Soon after returning home, I made a pilgrimage to Chicago’s Little India which occupies a strip along Devon Ave on the city’s far Northside. There I purchased the most important piece of equipment in a North India kitchen: a spice box. Mine holds seven metal cups filled with seasonings essential to North India cooking: ground chili, cumin, garam masala, coriander and turmeric as well as green cardamom pods and cumin seeds. (There is a photo of a complete spice collection at the top of the page. It was taken in a private home home in Jaipur where we observed our hosts prepare a thali dinner.)
With my new spice box and recipes saved from the trip at my side, I am attempting to recreate the meals we prepared. The results have been good enough, but something is always lost in translation. The differences in equipment is not an issue. The meals prepared for us were cooked on portable gas burners in heavy, handle-less round pots for which we have good replacements. Sauces were puréed in blenders less modern than our own. The most time-saving device I observed was a pressure cooker which was used to cook chickpeas and dals.
The basic techniques of North Indian cooking appear easy to learn. A curry begins with the addition of garam masala spices to what we would consider a copious amount of hot oil. Chopped or sliced onions and a paste of garlic and fresh ginger follow. Beans and vegetables go into the pot or are prepared on the side and in added later. Small amounts of various powders and seeds are added at specific times, and this is the hard part of mastering Indian cooking. Secrets are hiding in plain sight as each cook chooses which and how much of a seasoning to add. Learning to use Indian spices is akin to learning a new language.
The flavors of India are slowly working their way into my cooking. It has become my habit when making oatmeal to first drop garam masala spices into boiling water. Mustard oil sometimes replaces olive oil in my salad dressings. My granddaughters are learning to roll out chapatis and paratha dough filled with chopped curry, fenugreek and mint leaves.
This Saturday's knife skills class at the Alliance Francaise in Chicago will also benefit from my experience in India. The class will make a Vegetarian Cassoulet with a garam masala of French seasonings. Is that even possible? Come join us to find out, and stay tuned to this blog!
I highly recommend the Intrepid Travel’s tour called, India “Real” Food Adventure (HHZM)
Request Tour Leader: Ghanshyam Singh Rathore.