India: My Food Mecca
Tips from my first visit to India: What to eat, where and how. As well as some general travel tips.
I suppose every foodie has their own Mecca, and mine has to be India. I know, I know, you’d probably expect it to be France or Italy. Of course these places have a fantastic culinary tradition, and I don’t know where I’d be without either of them, but when it comes down to it, I need spice. I need the firey heat of chili and the warming sweetness of cinnamon, I need the freshness of coriander and the fragrance of cardamom. These are the things that make my culinary world go round. Although I’ve been eating and cooking with spice for years, I always felt like I missed a bit of basic background knowledge. I needed to go to the source, I needed to eat curry in the land of its fathers. You may think this is a little over the top, but I firmly believe you cannot cook something until you have eaten it. You need a starting point, something to aim for, and eating, tasting, smelling the food is what works for me. Not only that of course, but observing the circumstances in which it is prepared and was created, gives my own food much more depth and meaning. It gives me confidence in my recipes.
Planning my pilgrimage has not been without its challenges. I’ve been skirting around it for years, choosing the Middle East instead of going right to the heart of it. And I learnt so much about spice in places like Jordan and Oman – how to use it in the most unexpected ways, creating not only flavours but those hypnotic aromas that Arabic countries are so famous for. So why has it taken me so long to get to India? Well, you see, India is huge, the lands are vast. The culinary traditions are hugely varied, where should I start? Then of course there is the ultimate dilemma for a greedy cook. What if you get sick? What if I get sick and can’t eat any more? I needed to think about this carefully.
Then fate intervened, as it so often does. Around September time I was thinking about planning a trip somewhere warm in January to escape the bitter Northern European winter, get away from the biting cold and the never ending darkness. Something to get me through the no man’s land between the celebrations of Christmas and New Year and the start of Spring Time. Just at that moment an email popped into my mailbox from an airline with an offer for Bangalore. Bangalore, I thought, hmmm … Straight on to google and I could see that a flight to Bangalore would open up South India to me. That was it, decision made, my starting point would be Bangalore (or Bengaluru as it’s now known) and then I’d head down to the ancient spice capital of Cochin and then to the fishing areas near Kovalam in Kerala.
To get the most out of our short stay in Bangalore we decided to hire a private guide. I of course turned to the company I work with – Tours By Locals – I told Hermie, our guide, that I would really like to focus on food during our time together and our first stop was Russell Market. The market was originally built in 1927 by the British and still feeds the city today. You can get everything here. The vegetables are amazing. There is also a part of the market that not only feeds the city, but organises all of its catering too.
In one small square there are dozens of tiny stores, packed to the brim. Each has its own speciality. There is the linen place, full of crisp, clean soapy smelling tablecloths and napkins. Quite a contrast to their surroundings where the smells are rather more pungent. Then there’s the bloke who has glasses, next to him cutlery guy and their neighbour the fella with the crockery. Mostly they hire out to venues for the huge Indian weddings that last three days and have a thousand or more guests. Big business the linen people tell me.
We visited the market on a Monday when there is no fish or meat (or at least very little), at first I was disappointed, but ended up being quite glad. I don’t consider myself squeamish when it comes to butchery – I’m too greedy for that. But when I saw the state of the live chickens and ducks in this place, I really had to force myself not to clasp my hand to my mouth.
From Bangalore we took the night train, an adventure, of course we booked first class air conditioned which sounds quite fancy, but in reality is basic. Basic and pretty run down. At least we had some personal space which is the real luxury in India. After a bit of hectic chatter and confusion about platforms we found our train with the help of a smart looking I.T. professional heading home for a few days well earned rest. In our carriage, taking in our surroundings the locals were taking us in too.
There still doesn’t seem to be many European faces taking the Indian trains and so we were a bit of an attraction. The conductor appeared to welcome us personally and told us about his 25 years on the trains in a form of English that I had trouble following. He was only interrupted by the boys selling ‘chai’ and coffee and all sorts of biryani’s and chapatis to make sure we got through the night without going hungry. I’ve never subscribed to the hype at home about chai. I have no time for the usual suspect coffee chains making a big marketing fuss about a drink which is essentially builders tea. Builders tea is what we in the UK call tea that is strong, maybe a blend of Assam and Darjeeling, has been stewed until it is almost black in colour then lots of sugar and milk are added. Tea drunk by builders. But here in India I was more than up for it. We purchased two cups for 10 rupees each (so little I can hardly convert it back to Euros), sipped the sweet stuff and settled in for the night. It’s easy to get lost in the romance of the trains in India, to get mesmerised by the vastness of the network and what they achieve each day. However, I wanted to point out that after our journey I read an article in an Indian newspaper about the working conditions of India’s train drivers. They work 12 to 13 hour shifts with no breaks. NO BREAKS, not even to use the bathroom or eat. Their trades union is trying to change this as they say that it is the explanation for the high number of accidents, not to mention the higher than average incidences of suicide amongst train drivers. To date the government is not budging on making improvements for train drivers.
Our destination was Cochin. This spicy city is 650 km from Bangalore and 12 hours on the train. Located on the coast facing the Arabian Gulf, it has a long history in trade.
Especially the spice trade. As tired as I was when we arrived, I couldn’t wait to get out and walk the streets. They say that India smells, in fact, they say that it stinks, and yes, sometimes it does. But this a country of enormous contradictions, and sometimes the way that India smells is fantastic. Charcoal fires, tandoori ovens, ayurvedic oils and of course spices. On stepping out of the rickshaw it didn’t register with me straight away. It took a few minutes to name the scent. All I knew was that this place smelt amazing, of course, that’s it, the air was full of the smell of ginger. And in Cochin the streets are literally paved with it. Merchants are busy with tonnes of the stuff, packing it, weighing it, haggling about prices for it.
Countless dark little doorways open to reveal a wealth of ginger roots piled up inside. Just as I was being seduced by the scent, I started to sneeze, and again. I looked up through watery eyes to see a frail ancient lady drying her long black pepper on jute sacks along the pavement.
I had turned the corner of the ginger street and moved into pepper town. After inhaling myself almost high on spice I headed for a collective run by and for women who have been abandoned by their husbands. This little organisation is based above a place they call the ‘Ginger Factory’ and helps these ladies establish some financial independence.
Not so much of a factory, more like a storage space. In a warm room, cooled only by some lazy fans, a tiny smiling lady from Cochin let me smell all kinds of intoxicating spice mixes. For vegetables, for meats, for fish, even for tea and coffee. You’ll understand I didn’t hold back and have bought enough spice to start my own market stall!
On the way home, our rickshaw driver (his name was ‘Happy’) stopped at his local sweet shop. The base of these bite sized sweet treats seems to be milk, or condensed milk, sugar and maybe some semolina or other flour, of course spices, with the addition of maybe a nut or two, cashews or pistachio’s being the most popular.
The brighter the colour the better, the sweeter the better and the very best sweets are topped with edible gold and silver. Most of which seemed to be inspired by Gujurati recipes. The Gujurat region comes up quite a lot when talking about food. I got the impression that the region is held in high culinary regard throughout India. When people talk about it I got the idea that it is seen as a refined area. I mean, Ghandi came from there, as well as a number of India’s more popular Prime Ministers. I tried a few Gujurati dishes and the use of jaggery (an unrefined light brown sugar) and tamarind (a taste that is reminiscent of some kind of orange and vinegar) gives the food a subtle sweet and sour flavour. Under Happy’s instruction, we filled a box and ate them with him parked on the side of the road in his rickshaw, he joked with each bite that he shouldn’t eat so many as he was getting fat (there was nothing of him).
With our luggage full of spices and our bellies full of curry it was time to catch the train again, this time to Trivandrum, Kerala’s capital. The reason why we headed way down almost to the most southerly tip of India was of course the promise of those Kerala spiced coconut curries, but it was also the beaches. I’m very sorry to report that after much investigation, most of which took place in the back of the noisiest rickshaw ever, the sad truth is, the beaches are just not very nice. They are packed and pretty dirty. Around the edges burn endless fires, people trying to rid themselves of plastic and all sorts of other toxic trash in the only way they know how. Little rivers of black liquid, I suspect oil based, snake their greasy, sticky way around the sand. There was no way I would be putting my tootsies anywhere near that black sludge.
After much questioning of locals, seasoned India travellers and various travel professionals we gave up and retreated to the hotel pool. Which was beautiful by the way, I’m not complaining, but just didn’t understand where all those white sandy beaches, empty and pristine as depicted in the travel brochures were? Not in India is the answer.
The food more than made up for the lack of beach. I couldn’t get enough of the classics like King Fish Curry – probably Kerala’s most famous. The sauce (or gravy as the Indians refer to it) is coconut based and is flavoured with Kerala spices.
You hear a lot about ‘Kerala Spices’, it’s a mix they use in the south. It varies, but as far as I can tell (by consensus) it usually contains: Coriander, cardamom, cinnamon, star anise, cloves and sometimes bitternut.
The thing I loved most about the Indian people is that they talk about food all the time. If you ask them about their country or the regions, they immediately start with giving you food references. They want to know where you will be eating and what you will be eating. The understand their food, they all know how to cook it, they understand spice. Who wouldn’t love that!
There is so much to Indian cuisine, this is just the tip of the iceberg. I’m home now, armed with a flavour memory, a pile of scribbled notes from cooks and chefs and locals, some cook books that I just couldn’t resist buying and of course all those spices. Can’t wait to get cooking.
I’ve put together a little list of things that I learnt along the way, general tips and of course some ideas of where to eat should you ever find yourself in Southern India.
General Travel Tips
Visa – this is a complicated process. I’ve travelled quite widely and this visa was the most time consuming to arrange. Make sure you get the right instructions as there are a few dodgy websites out there and give yourself as much time as possible.
Train Journey – if you have the chance I’d recommend a train journey. However, book first class air conditioned (it’s cheap) give yourself a lot of time to get to the station and to negotiate it. Also, take toilet paper.
Flights – we found out that Air India very often cancels flights. If you do book with them, make sure you are flexible in your time and/or your onward connections. Again, give yourself a lot of time. I would suggest a day between an Indian internal flight and your connections. Check the internet regularly for schedule changes. There are plenty of other airline options, like Indigo Air, we heard that they are very reliable and stick to timetables.
Wi-Fi – This can be hit and miss. Hotels tend not to have it as standard and often want you to pay (I’m talking even 5 star hotels). You end up constantly signing in for service. In some areas the connections are not great.
Rickshaws and Taxi’s – rickshaws and taxi’s are basically on the make. You can’t avoid it. If you don’t look like an Indian you will be scammed. They take you to their friends shops, you know, the usual, even if you specifically give them an address. They’ll want to ‘show you the sights’. It’s very common to be presented with a list of places to visit as soon as they have you in their vehicle. It’s not that bad if you have time and you don’t mind, I mean the amounts of money we are talking are so minimal. However, if you need to be somewhere, best to get a car with chauffeur.
Leave Plenty of Time: This goes for absolutely everything, from getting to the airport to paying a bill. They will get you there, but they are bogged down in paperwork, regulations, hierarchy, bureaucracy and of course traffic.
Noise: India loves noise, it’s difficult to escape it, they even shout at each other. And with all their religions someone is always in the middle of some kind of festival. They pump up the music so loud that it vibrates through you. We even woke to a religious festival with drums, flutes and Indian style dance music going on from 5.30 am to 9am – yes, I said a.m!
Hotels: I would advise to book the best hotel you can afford – it’s worth it. Look for somewhere that has been recently renovated and make sure it will offer you some peace and quiet. You’ll need it. A day out and about takes it out of you. Whether it’s the noise and confusion or the dirt, dust and heat, you’ll be glad of a little oasis to retreat to at the end of the day.
Alcohol: The government is trying to crack down on alcohol use and so is making it very difficult for restaurant owners to have a licence to sell it. There are even ‘dry days’ each month. I am not sure however if this relates only to Kerala or if it is throughout India. Hotels that cater to foreign guests have licenses.
Hygiene and Staying Healthy
So, here it is the first thing everybody says to you when you tell them you’re going to India. Aren’t you afraid you’ll get sick? And yes, I was. For all my eating and cooking, I actually suffer from some stomach issues so if I get a dickie tummy it can turn nasty. Before I left I did a huge supermarket sweep style buying session at my local pharmacy as well as getting stocked up on all sorts of alternative, homeopathic remedies. I bought antiseptic hand wipes and gel. What I decided was that it was up to me to minimise my risk. So, I decided to start with my own personal hygiene and use common sense:
- I didn’t drink any tap water or what they call filtered water. I only drank from bottles with a glass or straw. I checked that the seal on bottled water was unbroken.
- I didn’t use any ice.
- When ordering juices or yogurt drinks (lassies) I checked with the staff if any water had been added.
- I washed my hands frequently. I used my wipes when water wasn’t available.
- I tried to be very aware of touching my face, especially my mouth and nose area.
- I also kept my shoes either outside or in one place near the door so that I didn’t drag in all sorts from the streets. I tried not to put my bag down on the floor, especially toilet floors.
- I carried toiled paper with me, especially when travelling around.
- I minimised my intake of fresh salads (just in case it was washed in not so good water). I didn’t eat fruit like apples and pears – only items that had been peeled.
- When choosing where to eat I looked at the people preparing and serving the food – were they clean? Did they use plastic gloves? Hair nets? Often you can see where they are preparing the food, so this gives you a good idea too. Where are they washing the dishes.?
- The seasoned travellers advice seems to be to go vegetarian when in India as the risk of getting ill from a badly cooked vegetable is practically zero, but meat? I didn’t go completely vegetarian because I was in the area of India that eats the most meat and fish. Although, I hardly ate any meat, and only some fish. Purely because the vegetarian options were so delicious, varied and plentiful I really didn’t think about it.
- Don’t get too comfortable. It’s tempting to ease up on your rules if you survive a few days without any symptoms, but keep it up.
I am very pleased to report I didn’t get sick at all. In fact my sensitive stomach was calmer than it has been in months.
If you are unlucky and get some tummy troubles, I spoke with other travellers who said that the best remedies are available at Indian pharmacies, better than our western pills.
Normally, when you see a heading like this it’s to help us travellers not offend the locals. In this case I suppose my reason for mentioning etiquette around food is to prepare you for some rather non-European habits as well share some observations that I found interesting. The food is of course amazing, the variety, the colours, the aroma’s, the flavours. Indian food, South Indian I suppose I’m talking about here has evolved over centuries and incorporates a vast knowledge of the use of spice. Meals are prepared lovingly and with skill, some taking hours to get just right, some literally days. So many meals are a feast of lots of different curries. But when it comes to eating, that’s a whole different story. It’s quick, fast, over and done with. There is no ceremony around meal times. All that wonderful food is wolfed down in seconds. There is no time to enjoy it, it seems anyway. I guess in a busy country of 1.2 billion people there is always something you need to do, somewhere you need to be. Everything in India seems to take and age, except eating. Most people will eat with their hands, and if you want to do this there is no taboo any more about which hand you choose to eat with. Don’t feel like you are expected to eat with your hands though, cutlery is normally provided, if not, just ask. There is something that I couldn’t get used to and that is that burping doesn’t seem to be rude, people (men mostly) let rip. Not only during a meal but even when they are talking to you, mid-sentence, no apology, not even a discrete hand to cover their mouth.
What to Eat and Where
You can eat anywhere at any time in India. There is a constant supply of street food and simple restaurants serving local and regional foods around the clock. A lot of the street food is deep fried and many of the restaurants vegetarian. The places I have listed below are a little more up-market (in general), but by no means less authentic. The reason I have listed hotels is that they tend to give you the time to savour the food and also the opportunity to ask questions about how they make it. I continually pestered chefs and waiting staff for recipes and cooking tips, everyone was incredibly knowledgeable and generous.
- Rasovara at UB city: Normally, I avoid Shopping Malls like the plague. But our foodie guide to Bangalore said we really should try this place. In the middle of a food court in a modern middle class mall, you’ll find Rasovara restaurant. Just sit down and everything will be done for you. There’s no menu. As soon as you sit, the food starts coming, and it doesn’t stop. I am not lying when I say that they bring at least 30 if not closer to 40 different small portions. It’s like tasting your way around India. From weird salty but at the same time sweet drinks to bread, soups, curries, rice, sweets, they keep coming. The waiters continually walk around with their serving pans laden with all kinds of vegetarian delights (not that you miss meat here at all).
- All Day Breakfast: I’m not exactly sure what to call this place I can’t remember the name, but it’s a sort of fast food / street food kind of establishment. It’s on the M. G Road diagonally across from the Oberoi Hotel under the metro station called Trinity. There are pictures of all sorts of snacks, go for a combo plate which costs about 75RP and has some sambar, semolina both savoury and sweet, chutneys, rice pancakes and a sort of savoury doughnut.
- The Tasting Menu at the Indian Restaurant in Le Meridien Hotel: The hotel is a bit dated but the restaurant offers a great menu where you can try the best of Kerala cooking and beyond.
- Brunton Boatyard Hotel: This is a beautiful colonial style hotel. Perched on the waterfront where the ferries come and go. Even if you are not in Cochin for the food this is an absolute oasis, is decorated with lots historical artifacts and is brimming with history. Rick Stein made a stop here to find out how the chef prepares his famous mutton curry. I didn’t have that (sorry Rick) I went for the paneer curry and an egg curry, both of which were delicious and cost about €7 each.
- Villa Maya, Trivandrum: This restaurant is situated in an old Dutch Colonial House, absolutely beautiful. The cuisine is Indian, but here they try and give a more fine dining twist and you will find some European influences there too. I say ‘try’ because I just want to manage your expectations. It is not what we would call fine dining by European standards. I’m not trying to criticise or belittle, it’s just a fact. Ask the staff to show you around the building, they’ll gladly give you a tour. When we were there this restaurant had no license to sell alcohol, but they have some really nice fresh juices that work with their food.
Some Dishes to Look out For
- Appam: A fermented rice pancake often eaten at breakfast time.
- Dosa: A super thin and crispy crepe style pancake eaten at breakfast but also on the side of many meals.
- Paratha: A flaky bread eaten with curry.
- Sambar: A smoky lentil dip served with dosa’s and breads
- Kerala Beef Fry: Hot and spicy beef dish.
- King Fish Curry: Fish curry in coconut milk.
- Biryani: A curried rice dish.
- Paneer Curry: Paneer is a fresh cheese.
- Mutton Curry: Slow cooked mutton in spices.
- Braised Spinach: Lightly spiced and flavoured with garlic.
- Fish cooked in banana leaf: Marinated and cooked over coals.
- Avial: Mixed vegetables in Coconut.
- Paal Payasm : Rice Dessert with spice and cashew nuts.